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Compare and contrast the poems ‘Out Out-‘ by Robert Frost and ‘Mid Term Break’ by Seamus Heany

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The subject of both poems is the untimely death of young people in tragic accidents rather than sickness. Strangely both boys are killed by machinery, the boy in “Out, Out-‘ by a mechanical saw and the boy in “Mid-Term Break” by a car. Both poems describe the reactions of the families to the deaths each of the families reacting quite differently. Both poems talk about the deaths of young boys who have older or younger siblings; one has at least one sister, while the other has an elder brother and a younger sibling.

Mid-Term Break” is written in the first person and is a far more personal poem consequently the emotions expressed in it are much easier observe and appreciate than in “Out, Out-‘ which is written in the third person, distancing the reader and giving a much colder perspective of the events. “Mid-Term Break” is set in Northern Ireland while “Out, Out-‘ is set “far into Vermont”. “Mid-Term Break” tells the tale of an older brother summoned home from college because of the death of his young brother who has been run over by a car. The main part of the poem is set in the family home, prepared for the brother’s funeral.

The family is traumatized by the event the parents suffering mostly the “father crying’ – the mother “coughed out angry tearless sighs”. “Out, Out-‘ presents a different death scene – far more sudden and unanticipated during the poem. A boy working in a family’s saw house is out helping by sawing down trees. His sister calls him for food, shouting “supper” and as a result, he slips and the saw cuts his hand. Surprisingly he dies as a result of this accident, or is it as a result of ‘the dark of ether’, but the reactions of the family are far more contained than the family in “Mid-Term Break”. Both titles are highly symbolic.

In my opinion “Out, Out-‘ has the most intriguing title, being an extract taken from “Macbeth”. In the play the line reads “Out, out – brief candle” and the line is said by Macbeth upon hearing of his wife’s death. The candle, a symbol of life and its fragility, relates to the sudden death of the young boy. Candles make an appearance in “Mid-Term Break” too when ‘candles soothed the bedside’ of the body of the dead child. The title ‘Mid-Term Break’ is a misleading one, suggesting fun and holidays – and a break from school. In reality, the term referred to in the title symbolises life, with term’s end meaning death.

The break (the boy’s death) was before the term’s end and therefore an untimely death before the boy has matured and is ready to die. The settings of both poems are quite different; the poet, Robert Frost, is an American writer and chooses to set his poem in his native country. “Out, Out-‘ provides the reader with an image of picturesque mountain ranges, “five mountain ranges one behind the other”, and an idyllic rural setting “under sunset far into Vermont” and is clearly set in North America. The saw mills and heavily wooded areas, the sawing work the boy is doing all hints at an isolated, rural existence.

The close family appears to be working together at the logging and there are indications of a strong religious, probably Protestant Faith as suggested in the line “And from there those that lifted eyes could count”. This brings to mind a line from the psalm which reads “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help”. “Mid-Term Break”, on the other hand, is set in Ireland and written by an Irish poet, Seamus Healy. It tells the tale of a Catholic family “snowdrops and candles soothed the bedside” in a mainly Protestant community – County Derry in Northern Ireland.

The lighting of candles around the bedside is part of the Catholic tradition when someone dies. The period of time covered by the poems is different. “Mid-Term Break” is set over a period of twenty four hours with constant time references build up to the climax of the poem ‘at two o’clock’, ‘at ten o’clock’. On the other hand, “Out, Out-‘happens in a matter of a few hours, it is a sudden accident which results in an unexpected sudden death. The style of both poems is different “Mid-Term Break” is set out as a conventional poem, organized into triplets with one line at the end apart from the others providing a climax.

The triplets gradually build up the tension and hold the reader in anticipation of what is to come. Run on lines also lead up to the climax and create a sense of inevitability. “Out, Out-‘ on the other hand is written in a prose style – one long stanza that looks like a page out of a book. The fact that it is also written in the third person creates an overall impression of an old fairy tale like Hansel and Gretel, just as horribly twisted although with an unhappy ending. The use of the third person ensures the reader’s detachment from the scene.

The style of writing is different; far more emotion is evident in “Mid-Term Break” and the use of the first person makes the reader feel involved and part of the family situation. Both poems have impact in the last line. In “Mid-Term Break” the last line set on its own serves to emphasise the tragedy of the situation. : “A four foot box, a foot for every year” The readers reaction to this line is shock, we were not aware of the child’s age before and in comparing his age to an inanimate object, the poet reminds us that the child is now also inanimate.

The final line in “Out, Out-” is shocking because of the coldness of the reaction of the family which alienates the reader from the scene. While the reader feels the family should feel compassion for their lost loved one, the family carry on with their every-day lives as if nothing has happened. The language in ‘Mid Term Break’ adds to the imagery; the ‘knelling’ of the bells indicates immediately that there has been a death as the word ‘knelling’ is used to describe funeral bells, and the phrase ‘counting the bells’ may also remind the older boy of his brother’s age.

The poet keeps a great deal back for the climax of the poem saving the details about what has happened until then, although hints are given in the first few lines. The reference to ‘Father crying’ is telling, as is Big Jim Evans’s comment that it was ‘a hard blow’; strong men have clearly been terribly affected by this tragedy, which indicates that this has been a traumatic and painful event.

The contrast of the men mourning and crying with the baby’s cooing and laughing is a strong reminder of innocence at that young age and is also a reminder that the boy who died was little more than a baby himself, adding to the tragic feel of the poem. The mother seems to rail silently at the injustice of it all, perhaps blaming herself. She seems unable to mourn perhaps because she is still in a deep state of shock; she merely ‘coughed out angry tearless sighs’ suggesting that she is unable to articulate her grief.

Thus far we have not been given any details of the tragedy, but when we are finally subjected to the painful image of ‘the corpse’ it is a brutal image as it has been ‘staunched and bandaged by the nurses’ which suggest some terrible violence has been inflicted upon this small body. The boy’s viewing of his brother’s lifeless body is full of imagery; snowdrops, the first flowers to appear after the cold winter, remind us of the child’s age – he was only in the early springtime of his life – and of the innocence of youth.

The floral imagery continues with reference to the ‘poppy’ bruise not only a reference to the livid injury to the child’s ‘left temple’ but symbolising remembrance and death at an early age. The brother cannot help but compare the lifeless body with how the child looked while still alive; he sees the body looking paler than the last time they saw each other and sees the similarity between the child lying in his ‘four foot box’ and how he used to lie in his cot.

The final line drives home the whole tragic situation – ‘a four foot box, a foot for every year’ a line which remains with the reader for a long time after finishing reading the poem. Clearly the event has had a traumatic effect on the poet and he has found it hard to come to terms with his brother’s death. The scenes are described with a clarity which is unusual for an event which happened so long ago and the language used is stark almost as if the poet is loathe to describe the memory in too much detail for fear of the pain it will cause him.

Yet the words ‘And nothing happened’ lulls the reader into a false sense of security but at the same time causes the reader to suspect that something might indeed happen. The phrase ‘the day was all but done’ can be taken on a superficial level to mean that the day’s work had almost come to an end, but at the same time it could be a sign that the boy’s life was drawing to a close.

The dialogue is dramatic and child-like at first unaware of the seriousness of his plight ‘a rueful laugh’ as he turns towards the others holding his hand up ‘as if to keep the life from spilling’ but then as he becomes aware of the implications of his injury pleading with his sister ‘don’t let him cut my hand off – the doctor when he comes. Don’t let him sister’. But the damage has been done, yet the injury does not at first seem to be life threatening which is why the sudden failing of the pulse is so shocking not only to the characters in the poem but also to the reader.

Little-less-nothing’ describes the ebbing of the boy’s life very effectively his slow passing in direct contrast to the sudden death of the child in ‘Mid Term Break’. What takes the reader by surprise is the attitude of the family ‘and they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs’. This cold reaction to the death of a child and concern for the practicalities of life rather than mourning his death, contrasts starkly with the grief of the brother, parents and others in the poem ‘Mid Term Break’.

The latter seems the more natural reaction to the death of a child while ‘Out, Out-‘ seems callous and calculating ‘No more to build on there’ so rather than waste time and energy mourning the family gets on with the business of survival. Their reaction is almost animalistic – the survival of the fittest and one doubts that the incident will remain in their memory for long, in direct contrast to ‘Mid Term Break’ where the poet is obviously still deeply affected by his brother’s death even after so many years have passed. Personally I find ‘Out, Out-‘ the more compelling of the two poems.

It is unexpected and original in the way it faces bereavement with such coldness and detachment while ‘Mid Term Break’ is almost hackneyed in its description of death and mourning. The contrast between the attitudes of the bereaved in the two poems could be because of their different religions with the Protestants either keeping their grief to themselves or merely accepting God’s hand in the tragedy while the Catholics find solace in an open display of grief and the comfort of ritual such as the flowers and candles and lying in state of the corpse in an open coffin for people to pay their last respects.

Alternatively it may hint at a completely different lifestyle; while the family in ‘Mid Term Break’ seem to be quite well off, the family in ‘Out, Out-‘ may have to concentrate on survival and therefore have to carry on eking out a living and do not have the time nor the energy to mourn. I cannot truthfully say that I enjoyed either of the two poems, but they both dealt with the subject of the sudden death of a child in ways that remain with you long after you have finished reading the poems.

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