The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

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 isolated together. In number 3, the two of them sit at home peeling potatoes while the rest of the family attends mass. In number 4 his education separates them, as she typically declines to pronounce words that are “beyond her,” deferring to his greater acumen. For his part, he finds himself reverting to a grammar of home rather than of his schooling, although even that stratagem, consciously undertaken, pushes them apart. In the remarkable number 5, the shared act of folding sheets becomes an intricate dance that paradoxically requires them to pull away from each other as it brings them closer together. In number 6 he recalls the shared rituals of church attendance during Holy Week.

The seventh sonnet shows the family attending to his mother’s death, with his normally taciturn father showing a surprising aptitude for the right words. Both numbers 7 and 8 play with the notions of presence and absence. When his mother dies, the family members all know that the space they surround, the space she has heretofore occupied, has “been emptied/ into us to keep.” Similarly, in the final sonnet, Heaney imagines walking around a space that is “utterly empty,” a beautifully realized metaphor for this elegiac sequence, in which Heaney circles around the space in his life which has been emptied by the death of his mother.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

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 work of William Butler Yeats and Robert Frost, leads Heaney to maintain a tension between the formal regularity of the sonnet (and of the rhymed poem generally) and the rhythms of everyday speech. The use of slant rhymes, run-on lines, and rhymes on unexpected words allows Heaney to maintain the conversational mode within a highly regulated form.

As with rhyme schemes, the traditional split between a sonnet’s octave (its first eight lines) and sestet stands open to reinterpretation. The meaning in several of the sonnets in “Clearances” follows the traditional split, with the opening octave acting as a single unit of meaning and the concluding sestet comprising a second unit. In other poems, however, Heaney introduces the directional break after line 7 (number 5), line 9 (number 8), or line 10 (number 7). What is consistent is that the poems contain two distinct movements, often striking out in quite different directions. The second sonnet, for instance, moves from a memory of childhood visits to his maternal grandparents’ house in the octave to his mother’s foreseen reunion with her parents in the afterlife. Similarly, in number 3, the octave concerns itself with the memory of the shared privacy of mother and son peeling potatoes on a Sunday morning. That glowing moment takes on different coloring in the sestet, where the speaker recalls it during the priest’s deathbed work. At that moment, while others are crying or engrossed in their own thoughts, he recalls that that morning, with their breaths mingling, was the closest they would ever be. Throughout the sequence, the sonnets offer similar shifts and changes; they must be read as single units, to be sure, but as single units made up of two distinct segments.

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