Seamus Heaney Sonnet 5
One of the most moving and emotional of Heaney’s works is his collection of sonnets called ‘Clearances’.These sonnets were written in dedication and memoriam to his mother Margaret Kathleen Heaney, who died in 1984.The eight sonnets are filled with lively, detailed and vivid memories, but the strong and loving relationship between Heaney and his mother is constantly referred to also.
Heaney has no difficulty in expressing openly the love felt for his mother, both by him and his family, as we see in the invocation at the beginning of the collection; ‘She taught me what her uncle once taught her’.
Here we immediately see how his mother has taught him simple but great life wisdom, how to live and deal with problems in everyday life. This immediately identifies a clear picture of love and devotion towards her son, illuminating right from the beginning their strong mother/son relationship. This life wisdom is reflected again in sonnet 2, whereby she commands him on various rules before entering the house she grew up in; ‘And don’t be dropping crumbs.
Don’t tilt your chair’. This yet again shows the close bond Heaney and his mother share, as she warns him in order to avoid him getting into trouble, showing that she is concerned over his welfare and wants to avoid upsetting him in any way possible. The fact that Heaney remembers this visit to his grandparents so vividly is also an indication of how important his mother and her family background was to him, as he shows a keep interest in all aspects of the visit.
Despite this, the true reveal of the close bond shared by both mother and son is seen most apparent in sonnet 3, whereby Heaney describes the activities shared between them on times where it was just the two of them alone. In sonnet 3, he mentions himself and his mother preparing Sunday dinner; ‘I was all hers as we peeled potatoes. They broke the silence, let fall one by one’. The close bond between them is easily spotted here, as peeling potatoes is seen as a feminine image, yet Heaney is eager to help and share quality time with his mother, emphasising the importance she has in his life.
The fact that there is silence is also an indication of their loving relationship, as neither feels the need to speak as they are enjoying just being in each other’s company. ‘From each other’s work would bring us to our senses’, this yet again shows the unifying element between the both of them, almost as if they are part of one another, showing how alike they are. The change in mood in the second stanza emphasises Heaney’s great pain at the loss of his mother. Yet despite this, they are still united as they were in the first stanza, ‘her breath in mine’, once again highlighting the closeness shared between them.
The final line in the third sonnet is a clear confirmation of the strength in the bond placed between Heaney and his mother as he feels the closest he has ever felt to her at a time when he should feel most distanced; her death, ‘never closer the whole rest of our lives’. A similar pattern of silence is shown in sonnet 4, where Heaney writes about his mother and how she dealt with her son being very intellectual despite only coming from a loving farming background.
In the sonnet, Heaney mentions the silent fear felt by his mother at the thought of people thinking of her as a snob, the fear of thinking that her family will think she’s above herself, ‘Fear of affectation made her affect. Inadequacy whenever it came to pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek’. This shows us the discomfort felt by Heaney’s mother by being torn to stay at her family’s intellectual level or progress in order to be the same as her son.
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We gain knowledge from the sonnet that she is slightly more knowledgeable than she decides to show, ‘well-adjusted vocabulary’. The result of her choice here illuminates the close bond between her and Heaney, as Heaney shows respect towards her by ‘governed my tongue in front of her’. He speaks as she would in order to keep to his background and make her feel less uncomfortable, which shows that he thinks about her thoughts and feelings and puts them before his own. Despite this, Heaney’s education is affecting them as the ‘grammar which kept us allied and at bay’.
This illuminates the problems faced by Heaney and his mother, despite speaking less intellectually for the right reasons, at the same time neither are being true to themselves, and are lying about the real person inside in order to please each other. The devoted bond between Heaney and his mother is illuminated again in sonnet 5. In this sonnet, Heaney talks again about another female activity that he is helping his mother with, helping her to fold sheets that have newly come in off the line.
The intimacy between them is revealed once more as their hands ‘end up hand to hand’. This shows yet again the closeness between him and his mother as they are together in such an emotional way by performing such a simple task. There is a slight flaw again in their relationship in this poem however, as we begin to see the differences faced by both Heaney and his mother with Heaney’s education seems to overpower his mother, ‘and pulled against her; suggesting that as he grows and becomes more intelligent, it is slowly pushing them away from each other.
Sonnet 6 shows a change in Heaney’s age, and it becomes clear that he is in his teenage years. Despite the change however, his relationship with his mother seems unaffected. He compares his mother with the book Sons and Lovers. The title of the book immediately shows us the deep love felt for his mother during these years, and their closeness is still confirmed as they kneel ‘elbow to elbow’ in the church at Easter time. Heaney sees this as important and shows us that mother and son are both entering a different phase, they are both now devoutly religious.
At a time when their views should differ however, Heaney and his mother remain allied, a true indication of the emotionally powerful shared between them. The ultimate reveal of the unconditional love and strength between Heaney and his mother is show in sonnet 7, the sonnet describing the death of his mother. On her deathbed, Heaney, along with other members of his immediate family show his mother the affection she longed for and deserved, ‘he called her good and girl’.
Here, Heaney shows the most affection he ever has to his mother, revealing true feelings he has towards her. The fact that Heaney feels a ‘space’ after she dies is also a key suggestion to the closeness of their relationship, that the woman he has loved and adored has left him and he feels emptiness, as if nothing can replace her, showing how highly Heaney thought of his mother. ‘It penetrated Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened’, yet again here, the flawless relationship shared between Heaney and his mother is shown as despite her spirit leaving her body, her ways have been passed on to him, and the use of the word ‘kept’ suggests that Heaney will never forget her. The end of this sonnet, with the use of the word ‘felled’ links sonnet 7 with sonnet 8, the final in the collection. In it, Heaney talks about the tree that has been removed from the garden in which he lived by new owners. I thought of walking round and round a space’, this shows the emptiness felt by Heaney after his mother’s death, and the tree is symbolic of the loss of his mother also. The closeness of the relationship between them is reflected in the feelings felt by Heaney after his mother’s death, he, like the tree, also feels like he has been cut, both physically and emotionally, ultimately illuminating the desperation he feels now that his mother is not around, emphasising the closeness between them.
Despite the focus of Clearances being on the experiences of Heaney and his mother, we are also informed of Heaney’s thoughts and feelings towards other members of his family. In the invocation, we are made aware of Heaney’s ancestors, including his uncle and other, present day family members who are working on the farm. Heaney shares his fear of being different to his family ‘to face the music’. It is clear that he is different to them, an academic gem, and it is clear that he is of the opinion that his family are being who they are supposed to be, and he believes that he is putting himself in danger by going against family tradition.
This shows the respect he feels towards his family, and he takes their feelings into consideration, as he does not want to hurt them emotionally or cause them any unnecessary pain. The next family member we are introduced to is his great-grandmother in the hard times when she married outside the tribe and changed her religion. Heaney doesn’t see her actions as anything unacceptable and sees it as an inheritance ‘to dispose of’ after his great-grandmother’s passing.
He is ultimately respectful to his past family members and sees the ‘exonerated stone’ as a mark of triumph not embarrassment. He shows great support and respect towards his great-grandmother and is brave enough to speak against what other people think are right, illuminating the support and love felt for his great-grandmother. In sonnet 2, we are introduced briefly to Heaney’s grandparents. Yet again, Heaney feels respect towards them and sees their way of life as organised and traditional, a successful way to be.
He clearly feels great affection and love towards them as he listens to his mother’s imperatives in order not to upset them and make things easier for his mother, ‘to welcome home a bewildered homing daughter’. The final member of Heaney’s family that we are introduced to is his father. In sonnet 3, Heaney sees and portrays him as a quiet man, a man who does not speak much, ‘hammer and tong at the prayers for the dying’. There is also a hint that Heaney’s father is a man of few emotions, at the suggestion that he is not crying at his wife’s bedside.
However, in sonnet 7, Heaney sees him in a whole new light. His father describes his mother as ‘good’ and ‘girl’, and talks about the early days of their courtship, and finally shows her affection by bending down to her ‘propped-up head’. Heaney is overjoyed at this, ‘she could not hear but we were overjoyed’, as his father finally feels like he did towards his mother. It is possible that Heaney feels a slight closeness towards his father at this point, that both are united in their grief. He clearly feels love towards his father, and his comforted by the words spoken by him at his mothers deathbed.