Seamus Heaney

Not Secrets But Mysteries: Seamus Heaney's Clearances

Safia Moore

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It was as if the pivot and pole of his life, from which he could not escape, was his mother.

(D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers)

Seamus Heaney’s sonnet sequence ‘Clearances’ from The Haw Lantern (1987) is an elegiac memorial to his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney, and is essentially about the process of emotional detachment from the maternal influence. Several of the sonnets recount moments of intimacy between mother and son, describing their relationship and the environment they shared. However, at times, the dominating presences in ‘Clearances’ are death in general, and the poet’s imaginative ideas about absence, space and loss.  Given the pretext of ‘Clearances’, it seems curious that Heaney deflects attention away from his mother as an individual with a unique personality. James Simmons suggested that, with the exception of some early poems such as ‘Follower’, Heaney ‘is very tender of family pieties. He seldom spills the beans.’ I would argue that in the case of ‘Clearances’, certain elements are unconsciously missing as opposed to being consciously concealed.  

‘Clearances’ consists of eight numbered sonnets but the long epigraph effectively divides the poem into nine parts. The choice of the sonnet form carries the weight of tradition, although Heaney’s structure here seems closer to a modern adaptation of the Petrarchan form than the English/Shakespearean mode. The poet zig-zags back and forward in time and primarily adopts three different perspectives: ‘me’, ‘she’, and ‘we’. The ‘me’ sections are the epigraph (about the poet’s experience of writing), sonnet 6 (a memory from the poet’s adolescence), and sonnet 8 (the mature poet’s thoughts on death). These three sonnets contain a plethora of references to sound. In the epigraph, Heaney describes a family technique for splitting coal, passed on to him from his mother. By linking this to the pressures of writing poetry, he makes an overt if arguably awkward attempt to identify with his mother, as he did with his father in ‘Digging’ from his debut collection Death of a Naturalist (1966). In ‘Clearances’, the ‘relaxed alluring blow’ with its ‘obliterated echo’ is credited with teaching the poet to ‘face the music’, and the purity of the sound with showing him how to ‘strike it rich behind the linear black’. Similarly, sonnet 6 recalls the sounds associated with performing the Easter duty during the school holidays. The reproduction in italics of the actual words used in the Mass is particularly effective here, along with the ‘Cruet tinkle’ and the ‘psalmist’s outcry’. Heaney’s reference to D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) in sonnet 6 is enlightening. Primarily, the novel deals with Paul Morel’s love and loyalty for his mother, and how tension and misgivings with regard to these emotions, affect his other relationships. Heaney’s term ‘our Sons and Lovers phase’, suggests that deep attachment to one’s mother is fleeting as adolescence brings change and transition.  

Heaney also uses sound in Sonnet 8 to describe the felling of his ‘coeval’ chestnut tree: ‘the crack, the sigh’. This personification of the tree allows the reader to share not only the deathbed experience, but the sense of shock and emptiness after his mother’s death. There is power in the climatic, final line where sound gives way to absence and silence:

                            Deep planted and long gone, my coeval

                            Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,

                            Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,

                            A soul ramifying and forever

                            Silent, beyond silence listened for.

Heaney’s essay ‘The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh’ from The Government of the Tongue (1988), provides perhaps the best insight into the closing of ‘Clearances’ and how it reflects the poet’s identification processes. The chestnut tree, planted in the year of his birth, was a sort of alter-ego/companion sapling to him as a boy. Heaney describes the central idea in ‘Clearances’ as follows: ‘I began to identify with that space just as years before I had identified with the young tree’. Similarly, with regard to attachment, he writes: ‘it was not so much a matter of attaching oneself to a living symbol of being rooted in the native ground; it was more a matter of preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away’. So, consideration of the death of his mother led Heaney to philosophical questions about the nature of humankind’s existence in general, of origins, departures, and the inevitability of mortality. This level of metaphysical machination frustrates any expectation of a strong maternal presence in ‘Clearances’. At times, the poem begs questions such as, ‘but what about your mother?’ or ‘what does “Clearances” celebrate about this woman beyond her ability to split coal, peel spuds, and fold sheets?’ It should be noted that this is not the case in the later poem, ‘Two Lorries’ from The Spirit Level (1996) in which the poet attempts a deeper understanding of his mother as a woman with hopes and dreams. Perhaps Heaney’s formal concerns in ‘Clearances’ are partly responsible for this lack.  

The secret of Shakespearean sonnet sequences is said to lie in their possession of a constant presence or pressure. The reader must be aware of the representation of the subject/dedicatee whose presence exerts a pressure to acknowledge him/her. Heaney achieves this effect to a degree in ‘Clearances’, but the overriding presence is surely the poet’s, as he comes to terms with his own ideas about life and death. At times, he appears to be (re)defining his own self-identity, rather than satisfactorily (re)presenting his mother and, in true elegiac form, restoring her as an ever-present element in his life.  

Heaney’s poetic preoccupation with self-identification issues is obvious too in Sonnet 1, which focuses on the prejudice meted out to his maternal great-grandmother for the ‘sin’ of exogamy. This part recalls the cobblestone cast at the poet’s newlywed ancestor on her first outing to Catholic Mass. Violence is part of Heaney’s inheritance, but the stone only becomes ‘exonerating’ and ‘exonerated’ on the death of his mother, when it passes to him:  

                         Call her ‘The Convert’. ‘The Exogamous Bride’.

                         Anyhow, it is a genre piece

                         Inherited on my mother’s side

                         And mine to dispose with now she’s gone.

                         Instead of silver and Victorian lace,

                         The exonerating, exonerated stone.

Whilst this conjures up images of the clear outs/clearances of heirlooms and other objects undertaken by families on the death of an older relative, it suggests that the mother held on to some of the bitterness or stigma attached to that stone missile. Equally important however, is the fact that Heaney still feels the resonance of the ‘mixed’ marriage and his own hybridism, three generations later, and this is the key to placing him in a post-colonial Irish context. Throughout his oeuvre, Heaney consistently advocates plurality and a balanced view of Irish identity, stemming from his own unique identification processes, not least those involving the Heaney family history. ‘Clearances’ gives much insight into this apparent compulsion to trace ancestral lineage.  

In Sonnet 2 the poet identifies with his maternal grandfather. The first stanza recalls the spick and span interior of the grandfather’s house at No.5 New Row, with particular emphasis on the ‘Don’ts’ (there are no ‘dos’), whilst the second is an image of the after-death reunion of father and daughter: 

                        And don’t be dropping crumbs.  Don’t tilt your chair.

                        Don’t reach. Don’t point.  Don’t make noise when you stir.


                        It is Number 5, New Row, Land of the Dead,

                        Where grandfather is rising from his place

                        With spectacles pushed back on a clean bald head

                        To welcome a bewildered homing daughter

                        Before she even knocks.  ‘What’s this? What’s this?’

                        And they sit down in the shining room together .

Although a clear view of the restrictions and boundaries drawn within the family is given here, very little is revealed about the relationship between Mrs Heaney and her father. This may be because in reality, little of that relationship was obvious to the Heaney children, and this is in keeping with the general theme of silence in ‘Clearances’. In Sonnet 7, the deathbed scene, New Row features again, as a place the poet’s mother is pleased to leave after her regular Monday night visits. Heaney recounts some of his father’s last words to his mother, ‘And I’ll come up for you and you’ll be glad/When I walk in the door … Isn’t that right?’.   This gives a fleeting insight of a daughter performing her duty towards an ageing parent, but it also reveals what the relationship between Heaney’s parents was like: ‘In the last minutes he said more to her/Almost than in all their life together’. These lines shock with their honesty and candour, especially when considered alongside the later line, ‘She could not hear but we were overjoyed’. The poet acknowledges the silence he had witnessed between his parents over the previous years, but at the same time, celebrates this final display of intimacy from his father. However, the generational differences are stark. The parents’ reticent, inexpressiveness contrasts with the poet-son who deals in words, driven to make the silences speak. Perhaps the ‘pure change’ he attributes to ‘The space we stood around had been emptied/Into us to keep’, is an attempt to articulate, as Pierre Macherey puts it, how a ‘silence becomes the centre and principle of expression, its vanishing point.’ Heaney’s attempt to articulate his origins includes a nod to the silences from which his poetry springs.

Most of the literary impact of ‘Clearances’ stems from the poet’s aesthetic treatment of lacks, omissions, and empty spaces. They may be symptomatic of the poet’s ambivalent personal relationship with his mother, and/or his own belief system, but more likely, they indicate how Heaney deals with differences between himself and his mother. The transference of these lacks into words is a mature response to ambiguous feelings of attachment, and a diminishing bond over time. Heaney explores images and ideas surrounding dependence/interdependence/independence in adolescence throughout ‘Clearances’. This exploration is most obvious in the three sonnets where mother and son directly interact, that is, the ‘we’ sections.

The potato-peeling section (sonnet 3) of ‘Clearances’ is generally read as a touching recollection of one of those regular, often repeated household chores shared by mother and son, but what the text actually says hampers too cosy an interpretation. ‘When all the others were away at Mass’ reminds us that the eldest son in a large family was responsible for helping prepare the Sunday meal.  The phrase, ‘I was all hers’ is interesting – why not ‘She was all mine’? Surely, a boy sharing his mother’s affection with eight siblings would relish an opportunity to demand her undivided attention. There is an odd ambiguity here:  

                           I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

                           They broke the silence, let fall one by one

                           Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

                           Cold comforts set between us, things to share

                           Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

                           And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes

                           From each other’s work would bring us to our senses. 

The dropping, peeled potatoes are all that ‘broke the silence’ and are ‘Like solder weeping off the soldering iron’. They are ‘cold comforts,’ but at the same time, ‘things to share,’ whose ‘pleasant splashes’ interrupt the dream-like state of the workers’ synergy. The choice of words (my italics) emphasises the bittersweet experience of spending time alone with one’s mother. Memory filters through the lens of stark reality, and Heaney recalls how the sound of potatoes dropping into the bucket of water, ‘bring us to our senses’. It seems that in the practical, work-a-day atmosphere of the family farm and home, even on a Sunday, there is little space for surrendering to unadulterated emotions or for feeling too intimate, too bonded. Heaney’s description of the wordlessness between mother and son as they perform their shared task, may imply the strength and unity of their bond, and is certainly an image of the healthy home environment.  However, the magic of the moment is shattered in the last line of sonnet 3: ‘Never closer the whole rest of our lives’. The poet’s ‘sense of real’ allows him to record the physical and symbolic closeness as an epiphanic moment, but the sonnet paradoxically reveals the ambivalence of maternal attachment. This attachment is very much a double-edged sword and Heaney remembers only moments of intimacy rather than an enduring state of closeness.

Another snapshot of physical intimacy occurs in sonnet 5. As mother and son fold bed sheets together, the household task becomes a metaphor for the emotional attachment between the mature poet and his mother. In Room to Rhyme (2004), with reference to Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Self Unseeing’ and ‘A Church Romance,’ Heaney states, ‘much of my own poetry has involved the retrieval of such moments.  Moments that suddenly come back with an uncanny ‘gleam’ as Hardy might have called it’. With particular reference to sonnet 5 of ‘Clearances,’ the poet goes on: ‘a memory of shared closeness […] a moment that would have been taken for granted at the time, but which in retrospect was emblazoned with blessings’.

The sheets form a sort of boundary between mother and son, and Heaney’s analogy involving the children’s game of noughts and crosses, again suggests restrictions and rules (such as those described at the maternal grandfather’s house). There is a strong suggestion that mother and son could be both close and adversarial at the same time:

                          So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand

                          For a split second as if nothing had happened

                          For nothing had that had not always happened

                          Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,

                          Coming close again by holding back

                          In moves where I was x and she was o

                          Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out floor sacks.

Heaney’s defective rhyming scheme in ‘Clearances’ echoes the theme of disharmony and incompleteness. In sonnet 5, the half-rhymes ‘line/linen’, ‘shook/thwack’, and ‘wind/hand’ mirror the intimacy between mother and son which is almost achieved, but not quite.

Differences between Heaney and his mother are put under a magnifying glass in sonnet 4, which, I would suggest, is where ‘Clearances’ pivots. There is an attempt to explain the root of Heaney’s inability to fully identify with his mother who, albeit playfully, puts pressure on her son to hold back verbally and grammatically: ‘With more challenge than pride, she’d tell me, “You/Know all them things.”  So I governed my tongue/In front of her’. The revelation that startles most may not be Heaney’s compliance in relapsing into the ‘wrong’/colloquial grammar, but his mother’s intentional mispronunciations, due to the fear that she ‘might betray/The hampered and inadequate by too/Well-adjusted a vocabulary’. By insisting on remaining loyal to the local community via the commonly used but incorrect grammar, Heaney’s mother is also challenging her son to remember his roots and remain loyal to them.  But there can be no unlearning of the newly acquired academic knowledge and the poet only turns on the ‘naw and aye’ to keep the pair ‘allied and at bay.’  

All this may account in part, for the appearance of Heaney’s great-grandmother, the  ‘Exogamous Bride’ of sonnet 1. The poet empathises with her and claims as his inheritance the cobblestone aimed in protest against her religious conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. Heaney apparently equates this crossing over with the ‘un-governing’ of his tongue leading to academic success, a virtual betrayal of his immediate, generally uneducated, ancestors in his native rural community. This echoes his earlier view of himself after quitting Northern Ireland for Glanmore in the Republic, as a wood-kerne ‘Escaped from the massacre’ in ‘Exposure’ from North (1975). In both cases, Heaney depicts himself as a deserter who separates himself from the familiar ease of belonging.

‘Clearances’ is a poem built on sounds and silences, presences and absences, which resonate and help articulate and balance the reality of the poet’s relationship with his mother. Lacks in that relationship, such as feelings of diminishing attachment, may feed into Heaney’s identification process vis à vis the rural community in which he grew up, to produce the final image of the felled family chestnut tree and the ensuing space described as, ‘Utterly empty, utterly a source’. The poem’s greatest success may be the way in which, to quote Macherey again, it ‘manifests, uncovers what it cannot say.’ Perhaps more important than what Heaney does not say about his mother (the word ‘love’ does not appear once in this long sequence), is the fact that he simply cannot say what he is unable to express. Even for a poet, language is sometimes inadequate.  

In a 2001 interview with John Brown, Heaney spoke about the ‘umbilical link’ between mother and child, quoting the sculptor Oisin Kelly, ‘These things are not secrets, but mysteries’. The poet’s comment helps inform any reading of ‘Clearances’ by illustrating that he does not set out to keep secrets but instead, attempts to find the truth beneath the whole mystery of intimate relationships, in this case with his mother. ‘Clearances’ epitomises Heaney’s consistent commitment to the concept that identity and attachment are ambivalent. Similarly, the poem celebrates silence as a precursor of expression. This is fitting for a poet who thrived on the hidden, the unsaid, lacks, absences, and unexplained mysteries as productive creative sources.