Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

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.

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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 belongs. Such a strategy invites readers to identify with the scene, to see their own losses in his.

Certainly the confrontation with his mother’s death leads him to consider his own. In number 8, the empty space in the world is both that which his mother occupied and the space formerly occupied by his birth tree, planted by his aunt and now cut down by subsequent owners of the family farm. That tree, “my coeval,” becomes a “bright nowhere,” a brilliant image of what it means for a being to go out of the world. The prospect of leaving the world has led to a consideration throughout the sequence of being in it, both in terms of his mother and in terms of his own career. The sonnets contain echoes and traces of his earlier work. The poem about folding sheets is a return to, and in a sense a critique of, his earlier “Churning Day.” That poem was about textures—dense, close, even clotted. Sonnet number 5 here is about lines of force, about connecting and pulling away simultaneously, and about, as he himself has said, clarifying and simplifying the excess of words in “Churning Day.” Similarly, the great closing image of the empty space is borrowed from the third poem in Heaney’s “Station Island” sequence, here turned to a new and more poignant use. Throughout the sequence he works at coming to terms with his agrarian past, which received such strong treatment in his first three books, then was laid aside beginning in North (1975).

For Heaney, death is inextricably linked to life, and just as many of his earlier elegies celebrate the life of the deceased—a cousin, a friend, an old fisherman, the poet Robert Lowell—so here the elegy for his mother stands as both a meditation on her death and a celebration of her life and of his life with her.

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