Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Haw Lantern is Heaney’s midlife volume of poetry, a response to the myriad crises that commonly arise during that stage of life. The centerpiece of the collection is the sonnet sequence entitled “Clearances.” These sonnets commemorate the life and mark the death of the poet’s mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney, whose simultaneous presence and absence are expressed in sparse but vivid imagery.
The first sonnet in the sequence opens with a cobblestone being tossed; the poet notes that it seems aimed at him. The hurled stone is a reference to his maternal great-grandmother, a Protestant who married a Catholic, thereby earning the derision of many in the community; it also symbolizes the unrest that plagued Ireland for so many decades. The aside suggests that Heaney, who has made his mark as a Catholic poet in Northern Ireland, might just as easily have written as a Protestant poet, save for his great-grandmother’s conversion by marriage, a chance stone tossed like a coin flipped. In this series of sonnets, The Troubles are closer to home, more personal, and more painful.
The first eight lines of the third sonnet in “Clearances” depict a son peeling potatoes alone with his mother while other household members attend Mass away from home. The next four lines switch to a scene of a priest presiding over the deathbed ritual. As others present in the room recite prayers for the dead or weep, the poet retreats back into this memory in the final couplet: “Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—/ Never closer the whole rest of our lives.” Memory allows him to experience true communion with his mother, a sacrament no less sacred and far more immediate than the rites for the dead offered by the priest. The fifth sonnet in “Clearances” merges the poet’s memory of unpinning air-dried linen sheets from the line and folding them into squares with his mother, the cloth alternately forming sails in the wind, and, though the poet never writes the word, a shroud for his mother.