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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

While the sequence consists of sonnets, no particular type of sonnet predominates. Heaney adheres rigorously to the fourteen-line sonnet form, yet as with his use of all forms, he bends it to his own ends. There are Shakespearean sonnets (as number 6 is), blank forms (number 7), and others that can only be described as Heaneyesque. He bends rhyme schemes to his own uses, varying patterns from poem to poem, thwarting the reader’s expectations, so that the standard Petrarchan sonnet form, for instance, fails to materialize, and the rhyme scheme sends the poem in unexpected directions.

At times Heaney employs very regular rhymes, while at others (as in number 7) he rhymes “soul” with “oil,” “breathed on” with “incensation,” and “pride” with “bread.” In the first two lines of the sestet (a sestet consists of the final six lines of a sonnet) in number 5, he rhymes “happened” with itself, thereby upsetting any expectations of formal regularity, yet the rhyme works beautifully, because he causes the stresses of the line to fall in slightly different ways. Heaney is typically mischievous in the matter of rhyme, partly because of his awareness of the irregularities of pronunciation in his native Northern Irish Catholic dialect: He has written elsewhere that in his native speech, “hushed” and “lulled” are exact rhymes for “pushed” and “pulled.” That personal linguistic history, together with the early influence of the...

(The entire section is 511 words.)