Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As one would expect in an elegiac sequence, “Clearances” is about mortality. Rather than understand mortality narrowly as “death,” however, one does well to consider mortality as pertaining broadly to life and death. His mother’s death occasions in Heaney a meditation on his relationship with her, on the effects of death upon a family, on his own aging, and on both life and the afterlife.

Most immediately, the poems concern themselves with loss: To lose one’s mother is inevitably to discover a hole in the world. Heaney’s image, in the final poem, of walking around an empty space is a remarkably apt description of that condition of loss. Throughout the poem he has considered his relationship with his mother in its various nuances, from the initial closeness to the inevitable separation and distancing brought on by his education and career. Yet during his whole life the one constant of his relationship with his mother has been her presence. Now he finds that her absence will color both his future and, in a sense, all that has gone before.

The occasion of this particular death also takes on a universal quality. At her deathbed scene in number 7, Heaney declines to name any of the participants. His father is simply “he,” the assembled family “we” or “the others.” They are both recognizable as themselves and generic: This is any family standing around the deathbed of a parent as well as the very specific family to which he...

(The entire section is 564 words.)