‘When all the others were away at Mass’
[from Clearances in memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984]
by Seamus Heaney
When all the others were away at Mass
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.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
From New Selected Poems 1966-1987 © Estate of Seamus Heaney and reprinted by kind permission of the Heaney family and Faber and Faber Ltd.
About the poem
A sonnet is, according to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a ‘moment’s monument’ and the moment captured here, in fourteen lines, is from Seamus Heaney’s boyhood. This poem is the third sonnet in an eight-sonnet sequence in which Heaney remembers with deep fondness his dead mother.
In the first section, the setting, that of a country farmhouse kitchen, is simple. A mother and her son are sitting in companionable silence, peeling potatoes. It is domestic, familiar, everyday and very special. In the second section the years have passed, his mother is dying and Heaney and his family are with her during those final moments. But the poem returns to that kitchen, years earlier, in the closing lines, which allows the poem to be framed by happy memories.
The imagery in the first eight lines, the octet, means that the poem steers clear of sentimentality. Falling potatoes are likened to ‘solder weeping off the soldering iron’ and the phrase ‘Cold comforts’ creates a realistic, vivid picture. The word ‘weeping’ anticipates, perhaps, another kind of weeping in stanza two. There are very few sounds in the octet – just the sound of potatoes falling into a bucket of clean water and ‘Little pleasant splashes’.
By contrast, in the sestet, the impersonality and indifference and speed of the priest’s prayers create a sound that went ‘hammer and tongs’. The other sounds in the room, we learn, are the sounds of prayers being said and weeping: ‘some were responding and some crying’. And Heaney, at this difficult and painful moment, remembers another time, a life-filled time, and cherishes it.
The word ‘I’ is used twice in the poem, at line two and line twelve; but the use of ‘our’, used three times in all, and in the final line of the octet and sestet, highlights the special bond between mother and son. The boy has grown up and grown away and he realises that he was never as close to his mother as he was that Sunday morning when they peeled potatoes together. He is now a poet, a poet who has mastered the art of the sonnet and made a monument that honours and expresses the love he has for his mother, but he has never forgotten a time when he was just a little boy.
In Clearances, Sonnet VII, Seamus Heaney, at his mother’s bedside when she was dying, felt:
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.
That space with everything associated with it has been kept and held within the eight-sonnet poem.
Seamus Heaney was born on 13 April 1939 in a ‘one-storey, longish, lowish, thatched and whitewashed farmhouse’ in Mossbawn, a forty-acre farm in Co. Derry. He was the eldest of nine children, two girls and seven boys, one of whom, Christopher, died very young in a road accident. Heaney grew up in a culture that was ‘Catholic, folk, rural, Irish’.
He attended Anahorish Primary School, St Columb’s College in Derry and Queen’s University, Belfast. Having graduated in 1961 with a first in English he did teacher training and taught in St Thomas’s Intermediate School in Ballymurphy, Belfast from 1962-1963.
He published poems during his third year at Queen’s under the name ‘Incertus’ [Uncertain] and during his year in St Thomas’s another poem, ‘Tractors’, was published in the Belfast Telegraph newspaper. In February 1963 Heaney wrote ‘Mid-term Break’ as his brother Christopher’s anniversary approached. Appointed a lecturer in English at St Joseph’s College of Education in 1963, he began lecturing at Queen’s three years later. In 1965 Heaney married Marie Devlin and his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, appeared in May 1966, when Heaney was twenty-seven.
The Belfast years were years of civil unrest in the North and Heaney’s poetry gradually reflected the political situation. His 1975 collection North explored similarities and parallels between ritual killings in Jutland during the Iron Age and deaths and killings in the North of Ireland. The academic year 1970-1971 was spent in Berkeley, California and he returned to a worsening political situation.
In 1972 he resigned form Queen’s and moved to Glanmore, Co. Wicklow where he worked as a freelance writer. On leaving the North for the ‘popish republic’, as one Protestant paper described it, an Editorial bade farewell to Heaney as ‘papist propagandist’. In 1975 Heaney returned to lecturing, this time at Carysfort teacher training college in Blackrock; the family moved to Dublin the following year. He spent 1979 at Harvard and was elected Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in 1984.
Heaney wrote essays and plays, held the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, lectured and gave poetry readings throughout the world and received numerous awards. His work was honoured in 1995 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature ‘for an authorship filled with lyrical beauty and ethical depth which brings out the miracles of the ordinary day and the living past’.
Seamus Heaney’s final collection, Human Chain, his eleventh, was published in 2010. He died on 30 August 2013, unexpectedly, after a short illness. Many, many tributes were paid by fellow-poets, writers, world leaders and celebrities. Honouring Seamus Heaney, on 1 September, over 80,000 observed a minute’s silence and applauded for several minutes at the all-Ireland football semi-final in Croke Park.