The first three lines of “Mid-Term Break” introduce the poem’s theme and its form. The poem begins with the speaker sitting in a “college sick bay.” In other words, he’s in the nurse’s office at a boarding school. Because the poem is autobiographical, one can assume that this is an Irish boarding school in the 1950s. The poet, Seamus Heaney, grew up in Ireland in the 1950s and attended boarding school there. The speaker doesn’t explain right away why he’s in the “sick bay”—whether he’s sick or not. But the poem provides some hints right away that something more unusual—and more serious—is going on.
First, in line 2, the speaker notes that he spends the morning “Counting bells knelling classes to a close.” In a literal sense, he’s simply listening to the bells that ring when a class period ends. But the “bells” can also be read as symbols, especially since the speaker describes them as “knelling.” Bells are an important part of church services. Churches ring bells to mark funerals; funeral bells are often described as “knelling.” In other words, the bells remind the speaker of funeral bells. And that makes the bells symbolic: they symbolize death and burial.
This is an ominous, unsettling symbol to appear at the beginning of the poem. It suggests that something is seriously wrong. And that sense increases in the next line, when the speaker’s “neighbours” show up to drive him home—not his parents. Though the speaker hasn’t yet directly acknowledged the tragedy at the heart of the poem, one has a sense that something tragic has happened.
The poem is very direct and unpretentious. Despite the symbol in the 2nd line, the speaker generally avoids figurative language, like metaphors and similes. The speaker is reporting on this tragedy as honestly as possible, in a straightforward fashion. The use of the past tense in the stanza (and throughout the poem) indicates to the reader that the speaker is describing something that’s already happened: he’s remembering this tragedy, rather than describing it as it happens. This means that the speaker has had some time to process it.
Furthermore, the speaker often seems very composed: it’s surprising how he can describe the events surrounding his brother’s death so directly. This composure is reflected in the poem’s form: the way that it’s organized, fairly neatly, into tercets. In this opening stanza, the poem is unrhymed and uses both enjambment and end-stop in an un-patterned way that feels natural, unforced.
But there are also signs that the speaker is having trouble maintaining his composure. For example, his meter is often off: the poem flirts with being in iambic pentameter, but it never really achieves a solid, steady meter. For instance, after a fairly iambic first line, line 2 starts with a trochee (stressed unstressed), followed by a spondee (stressed stressed). Then it has an iamb (unstressed stressed), a pyrrhic (unstressed unstressed), and another iamb:
Counting | bells knell- | ling clas- | ses to | a close
Of this line’s five feet, only two of them are iambs (though the pyrrhic here could maybe be read differently). The speaker is struggling to write a formal poem—and sometimes failing. He can’t quite maintain the control necessary to sustain the poem. This suggests that there are powerful emotions under the poem’s direct, straightforward language, emotions that gradually come out as the poem proceeds.