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Comparing Digging, Mid-Term Break and Catrin

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Like most of Seamus Heaney and Gillian Clarke Poems Mid-Term Break, Digging (both by Heaney) and Catrin (Clarke) are about family relations. Heaney has written these two poems when he was an adult, remembering back about his family. They are both written in first person (in different ways though) and are about the relationships between members of his family and him. They all seem somewhat autobiographical. Clarke’s poem Catrin is her looking back at the past when she was giving birth to her daughter Catrin and later on when Catrin is a teenager with their struggle “to become two” throughout.

Mid-Term break is written in the past, Digging in the present with the writer thinking of the past and Catrin is written about times past and present. They all give the reader an idea of what happened, but in different ways and using different poetic devices. In Digging, Heaney shows that he regrets that he didn’t to continue the potato farming tradition that his fathers did before him because he says “But I have no spade to follow them”. This feeling of regret is carried throughout the poem, and is shown in the nostalgic way Heaney writes “By God, the old man could handle a spade”.

It shows that he feels guilty from breaking away from the family tradition of farming, but by the end of the poem, he realises that what writing is just as legitimate a profession. He says (on lines 29-31 “Between my finger… dig with it”, which shows he has realized the power of what he does, and has pride in it. He no longer feels guilty. In Mid -Term Break, you can sense that Heaney felt rather detached and isolated because of the way he wrote “and I was embarrassed”. He writes in a sort of third person – saying what happened to him and this really adds to the feeling of isolation.

He doesn’t directly mention any feelings, other than embarrassment, which leaves the reader guessing what he’s feeling. It makes you feel like he is overcome with shock- so surprised, he can’t feel anything. However, at the end of the poem, when he goes to see his brother, this sense of isolation goes away. The writing becomes more personal and human, noticing the flowers and candle by the bed. Its like the detachment that was felt earlier has gone away, and Heaney starts to think about his little brother’s life. This makes the reader even more surprised by the last line – the revelation that the brother was four.

Catrin continues the theme of isolation, displaying the need for the two of them to become separate with the mentioning of a red rope of love, which draws them together. In the first stanza, this is literal- the umbilical cord holds mother and child together, and they are fighting against it to be free. In the second stanza it is metaphorical- the red rope of love is the love between the mother and daughter, and even though they are annoyed with each other they cannot break it. This shows that the bond formed at birth is still strong, and runs deeper then emotions. All of the poems are about regret and isolation.

They all use different techniques to do this, and I find that Mid-Term break gives its message the most effectively. It feels empty and bleak, and gives a sense of the isolation that Heaney felt very effectively. Similarly, the structure of the poems also helps show how the poet is thinking. The stanzas in Digging are of varied lengths. This gives a sense of Heaney’s thoughts as they will not be equal length or depth. Using long and short stanzas is effective because it allows a strong effect to be given with one stanza by making it short, and more detail- reflection on the thought, perhaps, with another, longer one.

At the end of both Heaney poems there is a sort of summary, contrast or answer to the poem. In Digging it is “Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it”. This is contrast because throughout the poem he’s been talking about how he didn’t dig and this shows that still can, with his pen. The final line suggests that Heaney has accepted that can still carry on his families tradition, by digging through his families past with his pen and storing the memories forever as poetry. Mid-Term Break uses a constant three lines in each stanza.

This is broken at the end, which helps to give the last line a strong effect because it feels out of place and against the rhythm. The last stanza being one line long makes it stand out and cause greater impact on the reader’s mind. The final stanza is “A four foot box, a foot for every year”. This answers questions such as “Who is the brother” and “How old is he”. It is said in quite a shocking way with the connection of length and how young he was. This adds to the feel of tragedy. Catrin uses two uneven stanzas, to show the two different times.

Stanza one shows the past, when Catrin was being born, and the second shows the present were they are arguing. Stanza one contrasts the mundane things happening in the city like “people and cars taking turn at the traffic lights” while momentous events of people’s lives were happening just nearby in the hospital. The summarising paragraph technique Heaney uses isn’t present in Catrin, however the last lines “As you ask may you skate in the dark, for one more hour” is a change from the preceding lines.

The lines that came before were a description of Catrin, and what mother and daughter were feeling, and the change in focus from description to action. This gives a strong ending to the poem, and shows that Clarke is wondering why her beautiful baby had to become a teenager. The phrase “tightening around my life” gives the impression that Clarke is worried about something, perhaps her daughter wanting to be away were Clarke can’t see her – skating in the dark. The use of a strong last line is very effective, as it is the last thing people will read and therefore stay in the mind longest.

Digging’s last lines are good at conveying that he is finally accepting that he can continue writing and carry on his family’s tradition. Mid-term Break uses this effect very well and separates the final line from the rest to make it stand out more. Clarke uses the last line to show a contrast between when Catrin was a baby to how she is now, a teenager. The structure of Mid-Term Break I think is the most effective, it separates the different times of things happening at the time and at the end has a separate stanza to show just how tragic his brother’s death was.

To continue the comparison, all three poems use contrast. In Digging, the acts of digging and of writing are contrasted. Digging is shown as the superior task at the beginning, being hardworking and traditional and Heaney shows great admiration for his fathers that did it. At the beginning of the poem Heaney views writing, as betraying the family tradition. However, near the end of the poem he changes his tone. He writes “I’ll dig with it”, meaning that he has decided that digging through history, and perhaps using the earth to build new towers of literacy, is just as noble as digging.

The big contrast in mid-term break is from the fifth stanza to the sixth stanza. In the fifth stanza, the image is very inhuman. It refers to the brother as “the corpse”, which give the impression that Heaney doesn’t feel any attachment. This contrast to the sixth and seventh stanzas, where the text gets a far more personal air. He talks of candles that “soothed the bedside”. In these stanzas, it becomes far more emotive than before. Another contrast used in this poem is the baby’s reaction, compared to the rest of the family.

Heaney’s father is crying, which is in itself unexpected and different from the norm, because he “always [took] funerals in his stride”. The contrast is in the way the baby and the father reacts. Normally, the baby is the one that cries, and the father is the tough one who doesn’t. This reversal of roles shows that the events that had happened were very unexpected and tragic. In Catrin, the everyday happening of “people and cars taking turn at the traffic lights” and the very personal and special happening of childbirth are contrasted.

This contrast makes us more aware of what is happening that it is different from what is going on in the room. Catrin as a baby and a teenager are also compared, and they are very similar – at each stage, Catrin wants to be apart from her mother. Finally, the poet herself can be compared from the childbirth in the first stanza, to the second stanza. In the first, she is trying to break apart from Catrin, however in the end she wants to pull back together. The use of contrast in the poems makes the reader think about the objects being compared.

It gives more information about what is happening and how it affects normal people, their emotions and actions. The contrast is most effective in Mid-Term break, because it shows the effect the death has on the family, in the way the people actions changed, and how they are different from normally expected. The contrast from the sterile environment of the fifth stanza, with the brother being referred to as the corpse, and the sixth, where it become more personal shows how Heaney has accepted his brother death, and while still sad has got rid of the shock that made him isolated in the preceding lines.

All three of these poems use different techniques to convey how they saw memory and the past. Digging makes us guess emotions, which can make the poem more immediate, and Catrin uses a contrast between the past. But overall I would say the Mid-term Break is the most effective. It presents the poet’s memory in the best way. It makes the reader feel like they really are in a memory of his thanks to his strong decryptions of what was going on and the emotions of his family. This, combines with the shock and sadness the poet was obviously feeling at the time, and gives the reader great empathy for him.

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