Heaney’s moving, celebratory eight-sonnet sequence picks out moments from a lifetime spent close his mother Margaret Kathleen Heaney née McCann who died three years before the publication of ‘The Haw Lantern’. Heaney set himself the challenge of expressing his love for her and his debt to her in the sensitive ways of which only he is capable. To this end he added the demands of the sonnet form.

He commented (DOD312): When my mother died, my own thing was easier to complete. I actually enjoyed writing those sonnets, and did them quickly. And quickest of all was the one about folding sheets, which also turns out to be the most intricate and most playful.

Heaney dips into the maternal line seeking ‘clearances’, laying ghosts, settling debts and claims as he goes. In doing so he discovers things that made him what he is. He makes it clear that beneath the bustle of a rural mid-Ulster farm managed by a farmer’s wife who bore nine children, with two parents of very different make-up, the factors unifying the household were security and unspoken rather than gushing love.

It was a pleasure to come across such a thorough, expert and sensitive exploration of these wonderful poems Judith Hedley

Introductory poem in memoriam M.K.H., 1911- 1984

His mother passed on life skills handed down to her (what her uncle once taught her) – when the chore of fetching coal for the domestic fire seemed beyond child-Heaney’s strength, she knew how to teach him to manage the problem (how easily the biggest coal block split) and in the process trained him to deal with issues (grain and hammer angled right).

Heaney recalls fondly the sound of her measured demonstration (relaxed alluring blow), the tips he picked up (co-opted) now no longer available to him (obliterated).

He learnt when to go hard (hit) and when to hold back (loosen), how best to deal with in-between situations (between the hammer and the block) doing his best but accepting he might fall short (face the music).

Heaney still hears and listens to his mother’s counselling voice, she will go on advising him how best to mine the treasures (strike it rich) contained within his coal-splitting metaphor (behind the linear black).

MP 215 Written in a version of terza rima, the poem stresses Heaney’s mother’s role as teacher /exemplar /muse, as a practical and inspirational force in his life. It was she who taught him the importance of getting the angle ‘right’; now, in the verses that follow, he appeals to her once more in his endeavour to hit the mark, ‘to face the music’ of her loss to ‘strike it rich’ telling her cause aright.

  • block: lump;
  • split: break in two, separate one piece from another
  • grain: internal texture;
  • angle: slant;
  • alluring: appealing, fascinating, captivating;
  • co-opted: taken on board;
  • obliterate: remove all traces, wipe out, cause to be forgotten;
  • loosen: relax, ease off;
  • face the music: live with the consequences of one’s actions
  • strike it rich: make one’s fortune;
  • linear: to do with lines;


  • 3 triplets in 2 sentences; line length 9-12 syllables; some loose end of line rhymes but no scheme;
  • heavily punctuated as Heaney lists his debts to his mother, not least for opening his mind to metaphor and image;
  • continuo echo of repeated ‘taught’;
  • assonant effects:[i:] she…me…easily…me between…teach…me; [əʊ]coal…blow… co-opted…echo; [i] easily… biggest…split… listen…it rich…linear[ɔː]taught…taught…alluring…taught…taught…taught; [ɒ] once…block…co-opted…obliterate; [ei] grain…obliterate…face;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];


Heaney described to DOD (310) his mother’s capacity for endurance and defiance alongside the strong devotional element in her make-up.  He winds back in time to focus on his mother’s mother at the origin of her own mental and spiritual determination.

An old story clamours for attention (keeps coming at me) – that of a violent Protestant reaction in a small community (cobble thrown) when it became known that Heaney’s great grandmother had converted to Catholicism. Deeming themselves sinless, Protestant zealots gathered to cast the first stone against what they perceived as the ultimate treachery (turncoat brow).

Heaney dramatizes the turmoil: spurring the pony and trap (jerks) acted as a starting-gun for public disturbance (riot’s on). His great grandmother took cover (crouched low in the trap), strong and proud enough to expose herself to abuse (running the gauntlet), hurtling at breakneck speed (down the brae … panicked gallop … whips) to the jeers of the most abusive insult (‘Lundy’).

This and other wounding labels (‘Convert’ ‘Exogamous Bride’) were and are standard insults to the victims of Northern Irish sectarian circumstances (genre piece). Only now can Heaney tell the story without touching a nerve (dispose with now she’s gone).

The historical ‘defection’ of a great grandmother (silver and Victorian lace) is not noticeable in the graveyard (the exonerating, exonerated stone).

  • cobble: small round stone forming a road surface;
  • first stone: ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’ (NT John 8:7); Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees when presented with a woman ‘taken in adultery’;
  • turncoat: defector, traitor;
  • brow: forehead:
  • jerks: move suddenly with a jolt;
  • riot: uproar, public disturbance;
  • crouch low: bend to avoid detection;
  • trap: light two-wheeled carriage;
  • run the gauntlet: cross an intimidating crowd to reach somewhere
  • brae: Scots-Irish steep hillside
  • ‘Lundy’: Military Governor of Derry during the great Siege of 1688/9 his name now synonymous with that of a traitor; reviled to this day by Ulster loyalists;
  • convert: person who changes religious faith, here Protestant to Catholic’
  • exogamous: describing a person who marries outside the clan, tribe or across religious lines;
  • genre piece: ‘typical’ example of behaviour in set circumstances (here Irish and sectarian)
  • inherit: come into possession from a previous time
  • dispose of: use as one pleases;
  • lace: mesh of threads forming an attractive fabric
  • exonerate: unload, disburden, later ‘clear of guilt’;


  • sonnet 8 + 6; variable line length 6-12 syllables;
  • 8 sentences with a balance between punctuated and enjambed lines
  • rhyme scheme abab cdcd efegfg; volta after the octet turns previous drama to more considered thought;
  • politically charged phrases used since the original discredited 17th Derry Military Governor; the Rev Ian Paisley used it in the mid 20th century at perceived Catholic insurgence;
  • assonant effects: [əʊ] thrown…ago…turncoat…low…dispose…stone; [ʌ] hundred…coming…mother …running…Sunday…Lundy…exogamous; [i:] years…keeps…me…she…piece; [ei] aimed…brae…Sunday …exonerating exonerated; [ɜː] first…jerks…first; [au] brow…crouched…down…anyhow; [ai] riot…cries… bride…my…mine; [æ] Mass at a panicked gallop
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];


The octet evokes a Castledawson address Heaney visited regularly as a child, the home in which his mother was brought up. Grandfather McCann’s ex-military influence was evident in the almost obsessive orderliness, touch of social upward mobility and formality. Perhaps with a hint of a smile Heaney recalls the numerous prohibitions that were drummed into him ostensibly by a mother echoing what was once drummed into her!

The sestet Heaney imagines the shades of mother and maternal grandfather re-united in death.

5 New Row, Castledawson everything in its place: floor covering and fittings immaculately maintained (polished …shone … shone); upmarket crockery (china cups) magnified by a child’s-eye perspective (very white and big); tea-service flawless (unchipped) and complete (sugar bowl and jug); timings on the dot (kettle whistled); special treats in ‘military’ symmetry (sandwich and teascone  … present and correct).

Once they were all seated at table the modal auxiliaries of duty crept in (must be). Instructions tightened their grip on the boy: how to keep the butter cool (In case it run), a litany of ‘do-nots’ for a youngster in training: dropping crumbs … balancing the chair on two legs … reachpoint … scraping his spoon round the teacup.

The scene dissolves into another version of itself – a spiritual elsewhere (Land of the Dead) in which grandfather and mother live on – a narrative played out as if it were real time: the expectant grandfather (rising from his place) laying his paper to one side (spectacles pushed back), shining pated (clean bald head); Margaret, flustered (bewildered), brought there as if by pigeon-instinct (homing daughter); he feigning surprise (‘What’s this? What’s this?’)  

Finally the tenderly imagined reunion of father and daughter in a celestial setting (shining room together).

  • polished: buffed to a smooth and shiny surface;
  • linoleum: (etymology Latin linum ‘flax’ + oleum ‘oil’): hardy canvas backed floor covering coated with linseed and powdered cork;
  • china: translucent domestic tableware one step up from earthenware crockery;
  • unchipped: flawless:
  • whistle: spout that indicates the water is boiling;
  • teascone: lightly sweetened ‘cake’ with added fruit;
  • present and correct: all accounted for (military origin)
  • run: melt in the warmth;
  • crumbs; tiny fragments
  • tilt: balance on two legs:
  • reach: hold hand out to receive;
  • point: raise a finger to direct;
  • bewildered: confused, acting slightly differently in the circumstances;
  • homing: as a pigeon instinctively returning to its loft:


  • sonnet (8+6); rhyme scheme abbaccddefegfg; line length 10-12 syllables;
  • 16 sentence construct explained by child’s’s enumeration, then litany of instructions; heavily punctuated piece;
  • ‘shine’ in lines 1 and 14 from lived experience to glowing otherworld;
  • ‘run’ subjunctive/ omission of ‘should’ for rhyme and rhythm;
  • touches of ex-military commands: ‘present and correct’ ‘rising…shining (‘rise and shine’)
  • repetition of instructions based on ‘don’t’ introduces verbal refinements: ‘be dropping – actually happening – ‘tilt’ to prevent it happening
  • assonant effects: [ɒ] polished…shone…shone…scone…correct; [əʊ] linoleum…bowl…don’t…don’t…don’t… Row…homing; [ai[ china…white…rising…shining; [ʌ] cups…unchipped…jug…sugar…run… butter…crumbs… Number…pushed; [i] lin…big…chipped…whistled… sandwich…bewildered…this…this…sit; [u:] room together
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];


  • Asked by DOD (312) which sonnet his mother might have most enjoyed Heaney suggested sonnet 2. Maybe the one about her shade returning to her first home in New Row, to that shining, spick-and-span kitchen and to her bespectacled, shining-pated father. She would have enjoyed the evocation of that old McCann house-style, the domestic cleanliness and correctness, the well-set table, the well-polished linoleum and sink taps returning from the farm to the finesse her aunts had brought from their days of service in The Lodge, the residence of the mill-owning Clarkes in Broagh. In doing so he provided more insight into the McCann family biography.


An exclusive moment of togetherness in the bustling herd life of Mossbawn – the family (father, Aunt Mary, siblings) all at Sunday service (others away at Mass) – leaving young Heaney to enjoy the undivided attention of his mother (all hers).

No words are exchanged. In a life governed by chores preparations for Sunday roast would not wait (we peeled potatoes), tacit teamwork was interrupted only by the sound (broke the silence) of potatoes dropped into a bucket (let fall one by one). The splash they made (recalling the distant sounds of welding in the farm workshop) is requiem to Heaney now (solder weeping off the soldering iron).

Boy and mother working in tandem working silently in a chilly farmhouse scullery (cold comfort set between us), engaged in a joint task (things to share) that yielded a humble treasure (gleaming in a bucket of clean water), working an assembly-line (again let fall) with constant reminders (pleasant splashes) of shared contribution (each other’s work) that drew them out of their private thoughts (bring us to our senses).

The mirror is smashed: Heaney’s mother is at death’s door amidst noise a-plenty – the Catholic priest is loudly fervent (hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying) some members of the family interacting with his cues (responding), others welling up in private grief (crying).

Heaney himself is reliving that treasured scullery moment: the mutual affection (her head bent toward my head), of two individuals, one born of the other (breath in mine), their distant watery togetherness (our fluent dipping knives) … a peerless moment (never closer the whole rest of our lives) enshrined now in the eternal present of his sonnet.

  • all hers: without any other distraction;
  • peel: remove outer skin;
  • break the silence: be the first to speak;
  • solder: alloy with low melting point; used to fuse other metals together;
  • weep: drop tear-like;
  • soldering iron: toll used to melt the alloy:
  • cold comfort: insufficient warmth or consolation;
  • gleam: shine brightly;
  • bring to one’s senses: reactivate the mind after mental distraction;
  • hammer and tongs: with great vigour;
  • fluent: communicative , in sync (watery image) flowing, going with the flow;


  • sonnet (octet + sestet); volta line 9; 10-12 syllables; much use of enjambed lines;
  • rhyme scheme in sestet abbacc;
  • assonant effects: [ɔː] all…all…fall…water…fall; [i:] peeled…weeping…between…clean…each; [ai] silence…like …bedside…dying…crying…my…mine…lives; [əʊ]solder…soldering…closer the whole; [e] set…let…pleasant…senses… remembered her head bent… head…breath…never…rest;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];

Heaney spoke to DOD (311) about his sensitivity as regards his double parental loss: As a matter of fact, it – or a poem like it…  was begun a few years before my mother died. It had the potato-peeling scene in it, and there was also a memory of my lifting, from under the kneeling board in the church, Mass cards that had fallen from between the pages of her missal. I never got it finished and no doubt the writing was hampered by the same considerations that kept me from publishing another parental poem, ‘Boy Driving His Father to Confession’;


After 1946 for the very first time it became possible for intelligent 11 year olds of humble farming stock like Heaney to attend selective schools that offered subjects way beyond the educational experience of their parents.

Heaney explains the subtle psychological game he and his mother played to avoid potential clashes of personality created by social mobility or educational experiences. He weaves in repetitions or near repetitions that occur when dialogue splits hairs.

Margaret Heaney’s aversion to putting on airs (fear of affectation) led at times in her son’s presence to a deliberately inverse position (affect inadequacy) … getting things wrong on purpose. Heaney’s case-in-point is a mispronunciation (words beyond her) –  Bertold Brek for German playwright Berthold Brecht.

Such renderings were close but slightly off target (something hampered and askew) –  in line, Heaney suggests, with her strategy of recognizing but not wishing to draw attention to her own educational background (betray the hampered and inadequate) by a contrived version (too well-adjusted a vocabulary).

On other occasions for argument’s sake rather than for self-esteem (more challenge than pride) she might come out with something ungrammatical (‘You know all them things’).

So as not to expose her to incorrection Heaney would weigh his words (I governed my tongue), knowingly compromise his ability to use language (genuinely well-adjusted) so as not to appear patronising (adequate betrayal of what I knew better).

When it happened he would revert to local vernacular (naw and aye), make deliberate mistakes (decently relapse into the wrong grammar) so as to keep her on board (allied) and meet half way when their views might be irreconcilable (at bay).

  • affectation: putting an air, pretending, posing;
  • inadequacy: lack of proficiency, ineptness:
  • hampered: hindered, inhibited;
  • askew: close but not right;
  • well-adjusted: balanced, realistic, measured;
  • challenge: test, trial
  • govern one’s tongue: to speak or remain silent discreetly;
  • betrayal: disloyalty;
  • naw/ aye: dialectal ‘no’ and ‘yes’
  • decent: appropriate, honourable;
  • relapse: revert, fall back;
  • allied: connected:
  • at bay: cornered


  • sonnet in 6 sentences; volta in l. 9; line length 9-11 syllables; heavily enjambed flows of consciousness;
  • rhyme scheme abab cdcd effgeg;
  • repeated cognates of affect and hamper;
  • assonant effects:[i:] fear…beyond…she’d…betray…decent; [ei] affectation made…betray……betrayal… As they share a second domestic chore Heaney weaves an intricate, unsentimental narrative of unspoken love for his mother..bay; [æ] affect…affectation…manage…hampered…askew…hampered… inadequate…vocabulary… challenge…than…relapse…grammar; [ai] time…might…pride…I’d…allied; [u] to…askew…vocabulary… genuinely…knew…into;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];

NC 158 Sonnet 4 in which the phrase ‘governed my tongue’ appears …  is one of the only two poems in Heaney’s work to set clearly at its centre the issue of class mobility as a consequence of education the other is ‘Making Strange’ in Station Island meeting his father whilst in the company of a polished American visitor(158);


The daily life of a bustling farm where up to nine children competed for attention might have contributed to his mother’s natural reserve and restrained emotion in matters of affection. In this piece it is also just possible that Heaney is hinting that an occasional arm round his shoulders might have helped him cope with his current mindset.

Heaney’s experience of fetching washing from the yard (sheets just off the line) gave him a feel for their touch (cool) and raised a caveat (damp must still be in them).

He pictures himself and his mother folding sheets together with ‘fluent’ synchronised movements. The choreography involved a sheet, four corners and two operatives and went as follows: first restore its rectangular shape (I took my corners of the linen) by setting up a counter-pressure (pulled against her); use parallel corners initially (straight down the hem) then crossways (diagonally); next loosen the fibres (flapped … shook … undulating).

Pinpointing the durability of the fabric, Heaney’s maritime analogy (sail in a cross-wind) and accompanying onomatopoeia (thwack) squashed any notion of dampness (dried out).

A process that halved the surface distance each time (stretch and fold) drew mother and son to the point of physical contact (end up hand to hand). The touch is fleeting (split second), goes unacknowledged (as if nothing had happened), is par for the course (nothing had that had not always happened), the same as ever (beforehand, day by day) and never more than that (just touch and go).

This, Heaney hints, was the nub of their mother-son relationship (coming close … by holding back), part of a game (moves) of noughts and crosses between opposites (I was x and she was o) that would end almost inevitably in a draw.

The emblematic X and O came coincidently from the faded lettering (Inscribed in sheets) of her home-produced bed linen (she’d sewn) recycled by a naturally thrifty person in a period of post-WWII austerity from ripped-out flour sacks.

Heaney said of Sonnet 5 (DOD312) I actually enjoyed writing those sonnets, and did them quickly. And quickest of all was the one about folding sheets, which also turns out to be the most intricate and most playful.

Interesting to compare: the folding process is as rehearsed and complex as ‘Buttermaking’ in Death of a Naturalist.

  • line: exterior washing line;
  • flap: shake to and fro;
  • dry out: lose any moisture;
  • undulate: rise and fall in a ripple pattern;
  • thwack: smack, crack;
  • fold: double up;
  • touch and go: literally as read; figuratively suggesting a one-way-or-the-other outcome;
  • hold back: restrain; balk;
  • inscribe: print indelibly;
  • rip out: discard unwanted sections;
  • sack: strong bag built to carry goods;


  • sonnet in 2 sentences; volta at line 7 moves the piece from choreographed movements into deeper questions relating to relationships;
  • line length 9-12 syllables; rhyme scheme abab cdcd eefgfg; flow regulated by rich use of enjambment;
  • assonant effects:[ei] came…straight…sail…they. made…undulating…always…day by day…again; [ʌ] just…must…took… pulled…shook…just…touch…coming; [i] think…still…linen…split…nothing; [æ] hand to hand…had happened…happened…had that had…happened; [ai] line…I…diagonally…like…I…inscribed; [əʊ] go
  • …close…holding…O…sewn;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];

Simple, humble, domestic chores such as folding sheets … with its cool pull, its thwacks of sound, its minimal, exclusive alphabet ‘where I was x and she was o’ – in the final phrase he jolts us back to the hard economics/frugal philosophy governing life on the farm, and how vital it was to make ends meet. Rural Ulster in the 1940s was no pastoral or advertisers’ idyll; the linen sheets were sewn from ‘ripped-out flour sacks’, would never have belonged on a Persil washing-line (MP216).


Heaney explained to DOD (310):  My mother … had a strong devotional element in her make-up … Prayer, at any rate, was an important part of her habit and her equipment.  

He takes us back to a period of his upbringing when, by his mother’s side, he was happy to go along with the devotions and notions he would later describe as a ‘surfeit of Catholic training’.

There is no exchange of words with his mother; he and she are on the receiving end of what happens.

Heaney’s amenable enthusiasm (first flush) extended to regular, recurrent Church attendance. Here he views the Easter holidays Holy Week as emblematic highpoints of a period when he fell in with his mother’s influence and direction (our Sons and Lovers phase).

He recalls the rites and symbols of a Holy Saturday Vigil services that ended with Christ’s resurrection (midnight fire) and the flame of His light brandished above the congregants (the paschal candlestick).

He and mother are side by side (elbow to elbow) in joint reverence (kneeling next to each other), prominently placed (up there near the front) in a service thronged with Holy Week worshippers (packed church) – his and her dutifully bowed heads follow the Order of Service (text and rubrics) immersed in the sacrament of baptism and renewal (blessing of the font).

The sestet introduces Psalm 42 and the notion of the female deer yearning for renewal of the divine presence (hind longs for the streams) shared in their joint devotion (so my soul).

The baptismal liturgy unfolds across a range of senses: symbolic visual acts (Dippings. Towellings), priestly actions and touch (the water breathed on), the blessing of Holy water (chrism oil), the sound of sacramental objects (cruet tinkle) and smell of fragrant smoke (formal incensaton).

Finally comes the spill-over: the words (psalmist’s outcry) that dilated the souls of mother and congregants (taken up with pride) are in total keeping with the emotional after-effects of his mother’s loss (day and night my tears have been my bread).

  • first flush: the early stages (associated with youthful enthusiasm);
  • Sons and Lovers: 1913 novel by DH Lawrence in which a woman who has little in common with her husband turns her attention to her children starting with the eldest whom she seeks to control and influence in return for reciprocal love; if the latter is discernable in the piece attempts to pin the further ‘Freudian’ sexual connotations of the original novel seem out of place;
  • paschal candlestick: important symbol of the risen Christ lit during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday
  • rubric: the term for the Catholic rules concerning Divine service, or the administration of the sacraments viz initiation (into the Church, the body of Christ), Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist; healing, consisting of Penance and Anointing of the Sick; service: Holy Orders including matrimony
  • hind: female deer;
  • dip: immerse briefly in water;
  • towel: wipe dry;
  • chrism: oil and balsam, consecrated and used for anointing at baptism;
  • water breathed on; reference to insufflation: ritual practice by which the priest breathes on baptismal water to transmit good and banish the devil;
  • psalmist: composer of a psalm;


  • sonnet in in 6 sentences; lines 9-11 syllables; rhyme scheme abab cdcd efefgg;
  • a kind of mini volta at line 9 moves from visual detail to inner need but a second shift in the final couplet achieves the real aim of the piece: personal requiem;
  • Catholic terms and concepts unfamiliar to non-Catholics and non-churchgoers;
  • assonant effects:[i:] Easter…week…be kneeling…each…we…streams…breathed…tears…been; [əʊ ] Holy… elbow to elbow…so my soul; [ei] days…phase…incensation; [ai] high…fire……outcry…pride…night; [ʌ]flush…Sons and Lovers…other up…front; [æ] paschal candlestick……glad……packed; [i]dippings…towellings…tinkle…incensation…mixed…chrism…with…psalmist;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];


A death is a sacred moment, a domestic moment, an exchange with loved-ones said Heaney in 2009.

He is gathered with his family around the bedside of a wife and mother very close to death (the last minutes). Attention focuses on Patrick Heaney, a taciturn figure throughout their married life together suddenly (as ‘The Stone Verdict’ would put it) released from ‘a lifetime’s speechlessness’ (said more to her almost than in all their life together).

Using a future tense in hope and denial Paddy Heaney’s mind reverts to the salad days of their early romance: picking her up from home (New Row on Monday night), presenting himself formally at the door (I’ll come up for you), confident she will be looking forward to it (you’ll be glad when I walk in the door).

Heaney paints a classical death-bed closeness – the leaning father (his head bent down), the dying mother made as comfortable as possible (her propped-up head). Patrick’s farewell is one-sided (she could not hear) but his simple touching words (good and girl) are of huge comfort to their children (overjoyed).

Over a split second  life ceases (she was dead), barely perceptible yet definitive (pulsebeat … abandoned).

The sonnet dilates into a new metaphysical circumstance (we all knew one thing by being there): the mother no longer present in life (space) is replaced by an absence they have all inherited (emptied Into us to keep).

Her disappearance (clearances that suddenly stood open) has replaced the erstwhile outpourings of grief (high cries were felled) with a flawless, enduring alternative (pure change happened).

  • New Row, Castledawson: home where Heaney’s mother was brought up;
  • prop up: support;
  • pulsebeat: sign to the fingertips that the heart is beating;
  • clearance: space, un-peopling;
  • fell: cut down;


  • sonnet; double mini volta –   8’s moment of severance and 10’s awakening of a new consciousness;
  • lines 9-11 syllables; rhyme scheme aabcbcdc not sustained; 8 sentences including question; enjambed sentences regulate rhythm and flow;
  • the circle around the bed derives comfort from his intimacies. The bareness of the language, father’s and son’s, is intensely affective – as is the assertion of collective solidarity in the last four lines with its image of a ‘felled’ tree (MP215)
  • assonant effects:[e] said…together……when…head…bent…head…then…dead…emptied…penetrated…felled; [ɔː] more…almost…all…walk…called…; [u:] together…you’ll… New…you…knew…into; [ʌ] Monday…come up…could…good…pulse… stood…us… suddenly stood; [ai] night…I’ll…right; [ɒ] was…propped…not… was abandoned…one;[i:] she…hear…we…emptied…keep…clear:
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f];

Heaney summed his parents’ relationship (DOD 311): their personalities and address to the world were so antithetical, or should I say complementary? She would affirm herself by articulating her position defiantly, he would counter by holding fire and embracing silence, but in such a way that the silence seemed like comeback rather than withdrawal.


Heaney’s post bereavement loss of purpose and direction summons a phrase from poem III of the Station Island sequence of 1984 when, a teenage pilgrim, Heaney wandered in circles (walking round and round) amidst the Stations of the Cross on Loch Derg. The poem’s barrenness is replicated now as he reflects on void his mother’s death left (space  … utterly empty). Michael Parker (217) sums up Heaney’s search for an image that might turn space and silence into a resource for undoing his feelings of loss (utterly a source).

The objective correlative Heaney sought lay dormant in his memory bank: the decked chestnut tree planted for him and decorated by an aunt on the very day of his birth in 1939. It spent its life within the native ground of Mossbawn farm (our front hedge above the wallflowers) until  it too was toppled (lost its place) – by new owners after 1953  when the family moved to The Wood following the death in a car accident of Heaney’s younger brother Christopher.

Its absence becomes almost more real than the tree Heaney had forgotten until now. He imagines the chestnut’s destruction stage by allegorical stage: its healthy tissue attacked – wood fragments flying everywhere (white chips jumped and jumped and kited high) by an unflagging agent of ruination (hatchet’s differentiated accurate cut); a tell-tale moment (crack) indicating it was doomed; the undemonstrative demise (sigh and collapse) of toppled majesty (what luxuriated); its awareness that something awful was happening to it (through the shocked tips); the net result (wreckage of it all).

Heaney’s distant commemorative tree (deep planted and long gone) – as old as him to the day (coeval chestnut); nurtured from modest beginnings (jam jar in a hole); the strong silent type (heft and hush) – morphs into a shining mother metaphor (become a bright nowhere) still burgeoning in some elsewhere (soul ramifying) – no longer a living voice perhaps (forever silent) yet still the teacher, muse and counselling voice she ever was (beyond silence listened for).

  • walk round and round: circle;
  • source: starting point, origin, root, derivation;
  • decked: garlanded, dressed up;
  • lose one’s place: give up one’s position in a queue;
  • chip: wood fragment;
  • kited: high flying;
  • hatchet: axe;
  • differentiated: separate;
  • crack: snapping sound indicating something about to fall;
  • luxuriate: revel, bask, wallow;
  • shocked tips: reverberation visible in the outermost leaves
  • deep: firmly so the roots go deep;
  • coeval: of exactly the same age;
  • heft: weight;
  • ramify: form branches and offshoots;


  • sonnet in 3 sentences; line length 8-10 syllables; slightly unconvincing rhyme scheme a-a- bcbc only
  • assonant effects: [ɔː] thought…walking…source; [e] empty…decked chestnut…hedge… differentiated… wreckage…chestnut… forever; [ʌ] utterly…utterly…chestnut…front…above…jumped and jumped…cut… luxuriated… …chestnut…hush become; [æ]hatchet…accurate…crack… collapse; [au] round and round… flower;[ai] white…skited high…sigh…bright…ramifying… silent…silence; [əʊ]coeval…hole… nowhere…soul; [ɒ]collapse of what……shocked…long gone;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];
  • In response to DOD’s reference to the first couplet of Sonnet 8 (308) Heaney commented: I’d read Mercia Eliade’s book on sacred and profane space by the time I was writing the ‘Station Island’ sequence, where walking round and round constituted the whole action of the pilgrimage. The phrase you quote first occurs in Section III of ‘Station Island’, where the pilgrim remembers where he ‘found the bad carcass/ and scrags of hair / of our dog that had disappeared weeks before’, a place that felt half sacred and half profaned.
  • MP 217 The chestnut links with that first place, that first sense of himself, with mother, father, aunt, brother, community, made it a potent symbol. In contemplating ‘the space where the tree had been or would have been’ some thirty years later, the poet was able to come to terms with his own unrootedness, his feelings of ‘luminous emptiness’ in the wake of his mother’s death.
  • NC 138 recalls a Heaney gloss from ‘The Government of the Tongue’ in his essay on Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Placeless Heaven’: ’Then, all of a sudden … I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind’s eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once again, in a way that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that space just as years before I had identified with the young tree … Except that this time 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 into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife. The new place was all idea, if you like; it was generated out of my experience of the old place but it was not a topographical location. It was and remains an imagined realm, even if it can be located at an earthly spot, a placeless heaven rather than a heavenly place’;
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the sonnets: fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

One thought on “Clearances

  1. There is so much inane poetry analysis online. It was a pleasure to come across such a thorough, expert and sensitive exploration of these wonderful poems.

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment