The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

An elegiac sequence of eight sonnets on the death of Seamus Heaney’s mother, “Clearances” is a reworking and revisiting of many of his early domestic and agrarian poems. At the same time it represents an attempt to confront the importance of his mother in his life and work. As the eldest child, Heaney occupied a somewhat privileged place in the family, and his mother figured in many of his earlier works. The sequence emphasizes the private moments—folding sheets, peeling potatoes together, even the oedipal struggle he calls “our Sons and Lovers phase”—the two of them shared.

Even the entry point of the poem involves a private legacy, as he meditates on a cobble thrown at his maternal grandmother by an outraged fellow Protestant when she married a local Catholic man. The cobble is both an emblem of his attachment to his mother’s side of the family and a literal keepsake, given to him by her. The intimate nature of that bequest represents the intensely private nature of the entire sequence. Similarly familiar—and familial—the second poem veers between memories of his grandparents’ house and a vision of them welcoming their newly deceased daughter to their heavenly home, which, significantly, bears the same address as their earthly home.

Having placed his mother’s death, Heaney is prepared to deal with his memories of their relationship. This he achieves in a series of four sonnets in which mother and son are...

(The entire section is 462 words.)