This beautiful lyric poem is certainly enormously moving. It presents an elder brother having to deal with a terrible trauma. As is frequently the case with Heaney, there is an arresting amalgam of manliness and tenderness in the writing that lends it both warmth and astringency at the same time. This poem is powerfully moving because of its emotional restraint and control of tone. Heaney concentrates on observed details and it is the accumulation of these details that helps to make the poem so memorable.
An elegiac tone is established at the beginning of the poem. An elegy is a poem written to commemorate a dead person who is traditionally resurrected in a benign landscape. Here, though, the little boy is recalled with clarity and realism; Heaney finishes with the rueful and terrible equation “A four foot box, a foot for every year”, which starkly conveys the shocking loss of a young child.
The poem opens with a line that might easily describe any child but the second line introduces a darkly foreboding atmosphere:
“I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.”
The word “knell” is appropriate in the context of a poem about death because it is the sound of a funeral bell. We do not normally associate school bells with death but this day was to prove horrifically different for the poet. The rhythm and alliteration also reinforce the mournful tone. The ‘c’ an ‘l’ sounda, as well as the internal rhyme of “bells” and “knelling” help to suggest both the idea of finality and of time seeming to slow down. The poet is driven home by his neighbours and not his parents, another unusual event preparing the reader for the idea that something is terribly wrong. The fact that Heaney remembers the precise time, “two o’clock” is convincing as we all tend to remember precise timings when recalling traumatic, like changing events.
Stanza two concentrates on the poet’s father’s emotional response who is “crying”. Heaney tells us that his father “had always taken funerals in his stride” but this death is unnatural as well as personal. The be bereft of a little child is unbearable for the normally rock solid father who would, we assume, be the sort of man to offer words of comfort to others just as “Big Jim Evans” offers his to Heaney’s family in “saying it was a hard blow.” (line 6) There is a terrible double meaning in the phrase “hard blow” because Jim Evans, by referring to the emotional impact of Christopher’s death, also unwittingly uses language that recalls the impact of the car that killed him.
The third stanza presents us with another contrast, the baby’s innocent joy at seeing his elder brother. Remembering the title of the poem, we might be tempted to hope, along with the Heaney family that this event is some terrible nightmare that might be woken up from. The baby’s normal behaviour, though, only accentuates the reality of the situation. From a technical point of view, Heaney’s skilful use of the iambic pentameter helps to emphasise the family drama that is played out in the poem. The baby’s innocent obliviousness to the tragic circumstance of his elder brother’s return from school is captured in, “The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram.” The bouncy emphatic rhythm is in direct contrast to the opening stanza’s measured pace. The unusual aspect of the