Exploring The Theme Of Premature Death In Three Poems
Death in the family is shocking, and it is even more appalling when it is unforeseen and when it takes a child. Three poets have written from personal experience three renowned poems on this theme. Margaret Atwood wrote “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”, Seamus Heaney gave us “Mid-term Break”, and Ben Johnson penned On My First Son. These three poets use the titles, situations, tones, language, structure, and musical devices in their poems to convey to the reader their different reflections about the common theme of grief over the unexpected death of a young loved one.
The title of a poem gives the reader an immediate impression of not only the poem’s subject, but also the speaker’s attitude.” Death of a Young Son by Drowning” and “On My First Son” are both straight- forward titles. Looking at them, the reader discerns immediately the focus of the poem. Mid-term Break, conversely, is a title that leads the reader to believe that the poem most likely is about a normal carefree vacation and break from school. The author of this poem used this title ironically. He anticipated the reader’s expectations, and took the poem in a different direction. The character in the story is certainly not having a “normal” spring break at all, as he is spending it grief-stricken over the death of his four-year old brother. If one examines this title on an interpretive level, the word “break” takes on a new meaning, as it could refer to the death of the child as breaking the heart or spirit of the family and the speaker.
The situations and tones in the poems are very similar, in that all the poems deal with the speaker in the poem expressing deep emotion over the death of their departed loved ones. However, each poem is different in the events that occur and in the attitude they convey. The speaker in Death of a Young Son by Drowning narrates the events of her son’s death as he travels on a voyage of discovery, (3,4) slides into the river, (6, 7) has an accident with his air supply, (16) drowns, (17) is retrieved from the river,(18) and is buried by his mother. (29) In On My First Son, Ben Johnson, the author, addresses his dead son directly, which conveys a great deal of emotion, and seems to make the poem more personal, inspiring more empathy than the other two. The poem starts with the father saying goodbye to his son (1). He then questions himself and tries to determine why he is feeling so much grief, because he rationalizes that it is better for a child to die young and escape the hardship of the world and the misery of old age (5-8). In the last line of the poem, he makes a statement belaying his intense grief when he resolves to never like something so much that it will tear him apart, like the death of his son did. In Mid-term Break, the speaker, a college student sits waiting for his classes to close (1-2). He then returns home to his grief-stricken family and friends, who try to console him, (4-14). Next he watches as the ambulance arrives with the corpse of his dead brother (14, 15), and finally he goes to look at his brother as he lies in his coffin. (16-22).
The speaker’s tone in Death of a Young Son by Drowning is bitter at first. The loss of her child whom she had great expectations for fills her with grief, as it is evident in the line “cairn of my plans and future charts” (19). Finally, she tiredly accepts the loss and buries him, in the springtime “like a flag” (25-29). The poem changes tone as it progresses, and ends with a glimmer of hope. The speaker’s tone in On My First Son is likewise very anguished. The speaker is torn apart by his emotions because he can’t understand why he should feel sorrow, since he rationalizes that he should be happy that his son was able to escape the hardships of adult life (5-9). He then comes to the conclusion that he loved his son too much, and that maybe if he had not loved him so much he would not have been hurt so much at his death. The poem ends with the speaker’s hopeless and almost inhuman resolution “All his vows be such / As what he loves he may never like too much” (12). Similarly, Mid-term Break has a tone of sorrow, with the mother sobbing dryly (13), but as the speaker views the dead child, there is a tone change, and the speaker sees the gentle innocence in the child’s death sleep. (“Snowdrops and candles soothed the bedside”) (16-17). This suggests to the reader that maybe death is not as bad as it seems.
The language in these poems serves to help set the tone, through evocative words and imagery. The common theme of anguish is evident in each poem by the word choices of the authors. In On My First Son, the author uses words such as “lament” and “misery” to describe mankind, (6,8) while in fact he is making a reference to himself. The author of Death of a Young Son by Drowning used words such as “slid”, “took”, “swirled”, and “plunged” to vividly describe the harshness of her son’s violent death, and she used words like “thin”, “glass”, and “bubble” (12) to describe the frailty of the boy and of human life in general. The author used words like “spring”, “sun”, “shining”,” new”, “leapt”, “solidity” and “glistened” (22-24) to describe the hope for a new beginning that the speaker had at the end of the poem. Mid-term Break uses phrases and words such as “bells knelling” (2) “informed”, “coughed”, “tearless”, and “sighs” to describe the sorrow of the family, and it uses words such as “snowdrops”, “candles”, “soothed”, and “poppy” to describe the gentle innocence of the dead child.
Metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech used by these authors convey ideas and emotions otherwise too difficult to express. On My First Son contains only one metaphor, the speaker compares the child to his best piece of poetry (10), a rather dull image. Death of a Young Son by Drowning contains many evocative metaphors and similes. The speaker uses a “dangerous river”(2) as a metaphor for the dangers encountered while giving birth, and also as a metaphor for the dangerous river that is life. A bathysphere is used as a metaphor for the boy’s head, and thin glass bubbles for his eyes (11-12) as he is under the water. This gives us the idea that either he was in scuba gear that failed (16), or that the speaker is showing how frail the boy was, his eyes and head thin breakable glass. The speaker also refers to the body of her son as a cairn. (18), or in other words a lifeless monument. The speaker also uses similes to set the tone. She says that her son was hung in the river like a heart (17) after the accident with the air supply. This gives us an image of his struggling helplessness. In the end of the poem the author compares her son to a flag, a symbol of hope and pride (4) as she buries him.
Mid-term Break uses no metaphors or similes, but it contains two instances of personification. The speaker gives action to whispers “Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,”(11). In the second instance “Snowdrops and candles soothed the bedside” (16,17). Both of these cases give the reader a sense of gentle quietness.
The rhythm and structure of the poems can give us insights into the theme of the poems.
On My First Son is written in couplets, a very formal, rigid structure, which goes along with the formal tone of the poem. Mid-term Break is free verse, with only the last two lines rhyming “No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear. /a four foot box, a foot for every year.” This and the enjambment before the last line give the last line extra emphasis and make the reader contemplate it more. Death of a Young Son by Drowning is free verse, which fits the abstract way the author presented the events of the poem. Mid-term Break was also written in free verse. Seamus Heaney, who wrote the poem, used rhythm, consonance repetition, and alliteration in a unique way in the line “Counting bells knelling classes to a close” it appears to the reader that the author intended the rhythm to imitate the rhythm of the pealing bells. Likewise, In Death of a Young Son By Drowning, consonance is employed in the transition line “It was spring, the sun kept shining, the new grass leapt to solidity, my hands glistened with details” All the “s” sounds give the reader a fresh feeling.
It is amazing how poets can use such devices as rhythm and meter to add emphasis to or even to change the meanings of their poems. The untrained reader will likely miss all hidden meanings if he takes a poem at face value and reads it without thinking on a deeper level or bothering to examine its form, structure, and language. A well-written poem is like an intricate puzzle, put together carefully by the poet. No word is chosen casually, and one must read a poem with that in mind. These three poems are not only sad stories about the speakers’ sorrow at the death of young children, as one might suppose upon reading the poems superficially, but if one takes the time and studies them, they also contain many statements about the human condition and how mankind views death.