Sunday, March 12, 2023



     There's so much that is marvelous in Seamus Heaney's poem "Mid-Term Break," starting with the title, which could be a double entendre, though I prefer it not to be. You should read it here now, ideally aloud. There is that internal rhyme, "bells knelling" in the second line, and the unfolding mystery that carries the reader along like an unwilling witness to a family tragedy.
     If Seamus Heaney's name doesn't tip us off that we are in an Irish house, little hints of language do — the "u" in "neighbours," the phrase "hard blow," and "sorry for my trouble."
Botanic Garden snowdrops
     The whole thing pivots on one word. Three quarters of the way through, the narrator enters the room where his brother is waiting, and the line ends with what I believe is called a terminal caesura: "Snowdrops."       
     When I read it aloud — and I happened to read it on WBEZ, the day Heaney died in 2013 — I always say the word slowly, infused with a kind of wonder, a measured awe: "Snowwwwwdrops."
     It's a significant pause, the way a roller coaster lingers at the top of a hill, before plunging toward that crushing final line. (And, I should add, an emphasis that Heaney himself doesn't put into the poem, at least not in the video of him reading it on YouTube, though it isn't a particularly effective recitation. He stumbles in places, as if reading the words for the first time. A reminder that artists are not always the best emissaries for their own work). 
     Snowdrops were bad luck, signs of death, a flower found in graveyards. There can be an irony in that flower, and not another, as they symbolize not only innocence and purity, but hope, which in this situation would be misplaced.  Though a sign of spring, there is something negative about snowdrops. They're cold and pale. "The snowdrop only," Tennyson wrote, "flowering thro' the year/Would make the world as blank as winter-tide."
     Heaney took possession of the word. He owns it, for me anyway, and when I was walking through the Chicago Botanic Garden — I went three times this past week — on Tuesday I noticed their sign chronicling the appearance of their snowdrops, the first flowers of spring. Hence their name, which was quite literal when snow started falling Thursday and I noticed some in my own garden: a rare instance of the Steinberg yard outstripping the Botanic Garden.

Snowdrops in my yard.


  1. I like Seamus Heaney's poetry, but I'd never read this poem before. Thanks for introducing me to it..

  2. The poem was new to me as well. What a gut-punch. Thank you.

  3. I really hesitate to take issue with our genial host with regard to a topic like this, since I'm way out of my league. But, while that's a fine melancholy poem, I'm disappointed to see snowdrops being relegated to the dour role assigned them here.

    Both at Wikipedia and elsewhere in a brief search, I saw no mention of graveyards or bad luck with reference to their reputation -- mostly spring, purity and hope. I'm sure Neil has justifications for his rationale, and he does make reference to those positive qualities, to be fair, before slamming snowdrops as having "something negative" about them.

    I will attempt to continue to be pleased to see snowdrops as a pleasant, long-awaited sign of Spring, and try not to be reminded of this gloomy post when I happen upon them! ; )

    1. Well-said. Consider snowdrops admirably defended. Not by you directly, by your questioning my source on funeral imagery and snowdrops. Of course I didn't make that up: "One of the reasons it was considered back luck is because it was found in many cemeteries and around gravesites. It has evolved to symbolize sympathy and consolation." ( But indirectly; in looking for this cite, I stumbled upon a poem I had forgotten: "Snowdrops," Louise Gluck's raw, heartfelt anthropomorphism of snowdrops. "I did not expect to survive, earth suppressing me." which rips them from my previous view, as pale and rather languid harbingers of better flowers to come, to hardy survivors celebrating their hard-fought existence. I'm tempted to rewrite the piece to include this poem, don't want to go down that road, and will settle for urging everyone to read the poem here:

    2. Thanks for that gracious reply. Clearly, I didn't search long enough for the applicable references. Though I did come across the Gluck poem while looking into the matter, but was not about to post it to counter the one you featured!

  4. Not much of a poetry guy. Not familiar with this poet. But that one was haunting, as well as heartbreaking..

    If January 3 (in 2007) is indeed correct, and not a mistake, that means that there's an 80-day difference between the earliest date (January 3) and the latest date, March 24 (in 2013). Proof positive of the wild climatological swings in northern Illinois from year to year, or even from month to month.

    For the flowers to bloom in early January, the previous December had to be amazingly warm. If they didn't appear until late March, the previous weeks and/or months must have been bitterly cold. Northern Illinois is not for wimps. And if somebody is one, its weather extremes either toughen them up...or chase them away. (SG)

  5. I never even knew snowdrops were a kind of flower until I read this. I just thought it was a word for heavy, slushy snowflakes. One learns something every day, or should.


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