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Summary and Analysis of Sonnet #5 from "Clearances" by Seamus Heaney

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Seamus Heaney, on the left.

Seamus Heaney, on the left.

Seamus Heaney And A Summary of Sonnet #5 from Clearances

Irish poet Seamus Heaney published eight sonnets titled Clearances in 1987 as an elegaic tribute to his mother Margaret Kathleen Heaney, who died in 1984.

Sonnets are a traditional form against which a poet might measure skill and disciplined technique through self-reflection on love and other topics. They can help channel grief and surplus emotion into what might be called a cathartic enclosure. Seamus Heaney clearly relished the challenge.

A mix of memory, emotion and event, the sonnets are an attempt by the poet to re-establish his identity with his mother and within the family.

The sonnets record memories of the poet, such everyday activities as peeling potatoes or folding sheets, and explore the theme of the intimate relationship that mother and son establish over the years.

Earlier poems by Heaney, for example, Churning Day, also focus on the mother and routine life on the farm that he grew up on.

'My mother took first turn, set up rhythms'

  • Sonnet #5 is a traditional English/Shakespearean 14 line poem with a strong iambic pulse, but Heaney adapts and changes through his use of language, rhythm and rhyme.
  • Note the seven line turn, where Heaney, in one deep breath so to speak, uses a single sentence in the first seven lines, ending in a full stop, then finishes the sonnet with a second single sentence through to the end.

Whilst the Clearances are a sequence and form a whole, each sonnet has its own individual merits and give the reader unique insights into the mystery that is the love between mother and son.

Sonnet #5

The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
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 flour sacks.

Analysis of Sonnet#5 Clearances

One of the first things to note about this sonnet is the lack of punctuation at the end of lines 1 - 5, 8 - 10, an important use of enjambment where a line runs on into the next, maintaining sense whilst slightly undoing form.

Knowing where just to pause to breathe introduces a subtle tension, perhaps intended by the poet.

So, whilst the iambic metre encourages a steady, rhythmical approach at first, daDUM,daDUM, and so on, the enjambment, together with lines that contain an extra foot, bring some uncertainty into the poem.

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This is a touch of magic from Heaney, lulling us into a false sense of security which goes against the grain. The seemingly simple domestic duty of drying and folding sheets becomes something more.

The language or diction is low key, straightforward, monosyllabic in places, all suitable for such a chore as folding sheets but note the repetition of the word off in line 1, and then in line 5, and had and happened in lines 9 and 10, which makes us think of familiarity with what might be a regular job.

Already in lines 4 and 5 the suggestion of a tense relationship is implied with pulled against her....then flapped and shook/The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind, the simile hinting at directions to take in life. So, although this scene may be one of mundane housework and physical interaction, there are emotional undercurrents running throughout.

And this build up of near tension between mother and son continues with the beautiful pairing of dried-out with undulating thwack which stops proceedings exactly half way through at line 7. You could picture the younger, perhaps reluctantly dutiful participant having a real go at this sheet.

The sheet folding is a metaphor of course, but for what? The dance of life certainly, the attachment of one to the other, the need for each other. This is one of the strongest blood relationships known to humankind and this sonnet certainly reflects the close intimacy between mother and son.

Further Analysis of Sonnet#5 Clearances

There is a sense of togetherness in the poem yet this is undermined by suggestions of distance and boundary. Note how the sheet becomes almost a barrier, how the act of folding is mechanical even if the two involved have to touch hands to get the job done properly.

In many traditional older English/Shakespearean sonnets, the rhyme scheme follows a strict sequence (ababcdcdefefgg) of full rhyme but here the poet uses a different approach.

  • There are only two full rhymes in the whole sonnet (them/hem and go/o), the rest being slant rhyme - or near or half-rhyme - (line/linen, shook/thwack, wind/hand). Why has the poet chosen to use such rhymes?
  • Slant or half or near rhyme is often called imperfect rhyme - which could be said to mirror the action of mother and son. Such rhymes question sense and bring doubt to meaning.

Line 10 is unusual in that it affirms the idea in line 9 that nothing had happened..that hadn't always happened. Reading line 10 demands an important slowing down as the meaning is taken in when the words are spoken. Use of enjambment again and intuitive use of syntax create a kind of sensual if odd dance out of what is a mundane household task.

This is mother and son Coming close again by holding back - playing a game of noughts and crosses on the linen, the poet attempting to put into perspective his loss and emotional trauma.

The final line is the yeast that makes the bread rise: ripped-out suggests pain and scar tissue and brings the real world in closer contact to the mystery of the mother and son relationship.


Seamus Heaney: Coming close again by holding back | Heads and Tales at Marin Academy ( - Hear Heaney recite Sonnet#5

Adames, John. “The Sonnet Mirror: Reflections and Revaluations in Seamus Heaney’s ‘Clearances.’” Irish University Review, vol. 27, no. 2, Edinburgh University Press, 1997, pp. 276–86,

Modern Irish Poetry, Blackstaff Press, 2004

© 2016 Andrew Spacey

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