‘Clearances’ forms part of a series of 8 sonnets about Seamus Heaney’s relationship with his mother and the townland of Mossbawn where he spent his formative years. Over the course of the 8 poems, the narrative jumps back and forth in time, from childhood, adolescence, and beyond. The poems allude to the complexities of family life and were published in ‘The Haw Lantern’ in 1987, 3 years after the death of Margaret Kathleen Heaney. In this sonnet, we bear witness to a momentous, private, and intimate occasion in Heaney’s life.
This is the deathbed scene and the family has gathered around as Heaney’s mother takes her last breaths. His father says a few words in her ear, and the impact of his utterances have a profound effect on the children. We would thus expect the themes of this poem to center around grief and loss, and this is true in one sense; however, there is also relief and joy when we read the poem carefully.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
This poem would fit the form of the Petrarchan Sonnet as it is divided into an octave and a sestet. The setting of the poem is developed in the octave and resolution comes in the sestet. However, the classic Petrarchan Sonnet has a regular rhyme scheme, whereas this is written in blank verse. The rhythm is iambic pentameter.
Analysis of Clearances
We are given an insight into the nature of their relationship by the first two lines which are almost shocking to the reader. Although he says only one sentence, it seems to the children that ‘it was more than their whole lives together’. This suggests that Heaney’s farmer was perhaps a typical Ulster farmer, who preferred to keep his emotions within.
Earlier in the sonnet sequence is a reference to ‘New Row’ which is where his mother grew up. The suggestion here is that she was relieved and happy to see her husband arrive to take her back to her new marital house.
The language is deceptively simple, but the use of dialogue as Heaney’s father utters his last words to his wife are poignant. In a single sentence, he manages to convey their love for one another; and show how he understands her. The fact that he says this, conveying so much by stating so little, shows the family the depth of their connection. There is thus the sense that this was implicit- they did not need proclamations of love- it was there all long. This reduces the sense of sadness that his mother ‘could not hear. What is implied is that she knew how deeply she was loved, and now the children know this too.
The impact of this communication is seismic for the family, as though they are reassured by this interchange and understand the relationship- ‘we were overjoyed’. This will mitigate the grief they feel at the mother’s passing.
There is a double meaning in line 10:
And we all knew one thing by being there.
They knew both that their mother had died, and that the love shared between the parents was real. The mono-syllables used in the line adds both a sense of finality and clarity.
The use of ellipses in line 5 reflects the cadences of the spoken word. The question ‘Isn’t that right?’ shows the intimacy between the two, which is also shown through their body language:
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
The repetition of the word ‘head’ at the start and the end of the sentence compounds this sense of closeness.
The caesura pause, mid-sentence in line 8, adds a feeling of suspense. It creates a moment for the words of the father to sink in- a moment to be treasured, even if his wife was beyond hearing, the children are not, and they understand. The words ‘good and girl’ may sound a little old-fashioned to 21st Century women, but it lacks all condescension in the context and suggests that the father is seeing her as youthful and vibrant, and this is how he will remember her.
Analysis of the Sestet
The conversational tone in the octave is replaced by a more abstract language of contemplation in the sestet.
The use of enjambment (run-on line), in lines 11 & 12 could indicate the transition between the mother from life into death, but also the relief of the children from uncertainty into joyful knowledge of the nature of the relationship. They can mourn without regret.
The poem moves onto a more intangible, mystical level. There is a sense of cleansing and clear spaces where once ambiguity and confusion lay. The relief and joy pour into the empty space with such strength that it ‘penetrates’.
The mother figure as they knew her has gone, but her influence and goodness can be internalized and they can carry her joyful legacy with them.
The final line takes this idea of moving onwards with hope to another level:
‘High cries were felled and a pure change happened.’
The imagery here could be lifted from a countryside task of felling trees. The ’high cries’ associated with intense sadness are replaced with a sense of peace so intense that it is described as ‘pure change’. There are Biblical connotations of moving from darkness into light, from doubt into certainty, and from despair into hope.
The use of the words ‘space’, ‘emptied’, ‘penetrated’, ‘clearances’, ‘pure’, and ‘change’ are all synonymous with relief and joy.
The many references to ‘space’ and even the title ‘clearances’, could, some critics think, suggest the vast emptiness that the Speaker feels after the death of his mother. Having always exerted such an influence on his life, it is not surprising that the feelings of loss are intense. It should be remembered though, that grief is a complex and often confusing emotion. The Speaker may feel a sense of relief and gratefulness for a life well-lived one moment and feel totally bereft the next. This state of flux is something to be expected after a life-changing event.
Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in County Derry in Northern Ireland. He was educated at St Columb’s College in Derry and went on to study Classics at Queen’s University before training to be a teacher. His career took him from teaching in Dublin to lecturing at Harvard in America and Oxford University in England. He won awards for not only writing poetry, but for his translations of the Classics too. His poetry was greatly influenced by his close-knit family and the farming community in which he was raised. The Heaney family was touched by a great tragedy in 1953 when his younger brother Christopher was hit by a car and killed. Heaney immortalized this event in verse in his famous poem, ‘Mid-term Break‘. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995; and died in Dublin in August 2013.