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Seamus Heaney’s “When All the Others Were Away at Mass” is a moving and thoughtful poem. It’s from his poetry collection “Clearances,” which focuses on the poet’s connection with his mother. In this specific poem, Heaney reflects on an incredibly personal and closely related experience he had with his mother when they were both peeling potatoes in the kitchen. As the speaker describes this ordinary yet deep event, the poem beautifully conveys nostalgia and emotional recollection. Heaney conveys a strong bond between the speaker and his mother using vivid sensory imagery, emphasizing the importance of small details in influencing how we perceive love and relationships.
About the poet
Irish poet, dramatist, and translator Seamus Justin Heaney (13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013) was born in Dublin. He was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature and continues to be regarded as one of Ireland’s most important poets. He was a lecturer at St. Joseph’s College in Belfast and came from Tamniaran, Northern Ireland. From 1981 to 1997, he taught at Harvard, and from 1989 to 1994, at Oxford. He received the E. Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1968. M. Forster Award (1975), PEN Translation Prize (1985), Golden Wreath of Poetry (2001), T. S. Eliot Prize (2006), and two Whitbread Prizes (1996 and 1999) are just a few of the awards bestowed upon him.
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.
In these lines, the speaker recounts a special moment he shared while peeling potatoes with his mother. The speaker and his mother work together to peel potatoes while the rest of the family is gone at Mass. The process of peeling potatoes begins to symbolize their shared experience and the intimate connection they develop.
The speaker and his mother are able to share precious time together while everyone else is absent because they are attending Mass. The phrase “I was all hers as we peeled potatoes” conveys a feeling of obedience and feelings of affection. The speaker freely commits his full self to the situation and his mother. This statement also refers to the speaker’s mother and her sense of connection and exclusivity.
It is implied by the line “Cold comforts set between us” that peeling potatoes brings about a sense of comfort and peace. The use of the expression “things to share” highlights the significance of this shared experience to their connection. The potatoes they peel serve as a metaphor for ordinary aspects of life that, when shared with others, take on significance and meaning. The phrase “Gleaming in a bucket of clean water” draws up a picture of peeled potatoes floating in the water, their brightness and purity standing in striking contrast to the process of peeling. This picture both physically and figuratively implies the act of cleaning or washing. The container of water takes on the meaning of rebirth and a new beginning.
“Little pleasant splashes” indicates their interaction as being fun and lighthearted. They become more conscious of each other’s presence and return to the present through the act of splashing water on each other. It reminds them of their shared humanity and physicality. Overall, these phrases reflect a shared experience, a moment of vulnerability, and a link between the speaker and the mother who is by themselves. They experience comfort, connection, and greater knowledge of one another while they peel potatoes.
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.
In these lines, the speaker considers a sweet memory of a shared time with his mother while contrasting it with the distant and formal prayers for her being offered by the parish priest. The memory includes close physical contact and a shared activity—using knives—which fosters a strong connection and intimacy unlike anything else in their life.
The speaker contrasts a personal recollection with the scene of the parish priest praying for her in this section. While the priest delivers the prayers, some people react by crying. But the speaker’s focus is on a personal remembrance, particularly a time with his mother. The phrase “I remembered her head bent towards my head” is referring to the speaker and his mother being physically near and having a close connection to one another. This tender act denotes a deep emotional connection and understanding.
The phrase “her breath in mine” emphasizes the speaker’s intimacy and closeness to his mother. Together breathing represents a strong connection and a shared experience. When “our fluent dipping knives” is referred to, the speaker and his mother were engaged in a collaborative task or activity. Knives are a symbol of cooperation and trust, therefore using them together suggests these qualities. Additionally, it gives the memory an intense aspect by bringing up the sound and movement of the cutting edges dipping into something.
The ceremonial prayers for his mother contrasted with a personal memory that has great importance for the speaker making up the majority of these lines. It emphasizes the importance of interpersonal relationships and shared experiences, which have a stronger emotional impact than formal rituals and ceremonies. In the speaker’s life, the memory he is recalling is a unique and priceless instance of intimacy and connection.