Feature

Seamus Heaney, 1939–2013

The Irish poet who wrote of mud, history, and country

Seamus Heaney’s upbringing in Northern Ireland meant he was variously claimed as both an Irish and a British poet, but there was never any doubt where his true identity lay. He set poetry anthologists straight once and for all in a 1983 poem, “An Open Letter.” “Be advised, my passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen,” he wrote. “British, no, the name’s not right. / Yours truly, Seamus.”

Heaney was raised in rural County Derry, Northern Ireland, as one of nine children born to a cattle farmer and his wife, said The Washington Post. In a family where the “knack for slicing peat” was respected more than an ear for language, Heaney gained his love of words from the radio and the Catholic Mass. After winning a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school, he studied English literature at Queen’s University Belfast and began publishing poetry in the student magazine. His first collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966), explored the marked contrasts between his family history and the profession he was drifting toward. “I’ve no spade to follow men like them,” he wrote of his farming ancestors. “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.”

“Acclamation came almost instantly,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Heaney’s “mud-caked” style, rich with imagery from the soil, quickly became famous, and was soon referred to by critics as “Heaneyesque.” But as his reputation grew so did the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, and Heaney was increasingly put under pressure “to take up cudgels” for the Republican cause. He moved south to the Republic of Ireland in 1972, wanting to avoid sectarian strife, but wrote about the Troubles from afar in his collection North (1975). It was attacked by both sides for refusing to come down firmly for one or the other. Little wonder Heaney was happy to accept a teaching post in 1982 at Harvard University, where “language was regarded as a worldwide republic without borders.”

Heaney’s ascendancy to the global lecture circuit brought a new kind of fame, said The New York Times, as his “profuse white hair and stentorian voice” made him instantly recognizable. In 1995, he joined W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett as an Irish winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Although he worried his work would be affected by this “Stockholm business,” as he called it, in 1999 he published a translation of Beowulf to worldwide acclaim.

Heaney’s poetry is widely quoted. In April, Vice President Joe Biden recited words from “one of my favorite poets” at the funeral of a university police officer killed in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings: “History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave. / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme.”

Recommended

Civilian death toll in Ukraine tops 4,000, U.N. says
Bombed school in Luhansk
fighting to survive

Civilian death toll in Ukraine tops 4,000, U.N. says

10 things you need to know today: May 28, 2022
Protesters outside the NRA convention
Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: May 28, 2022

Depeche Mode's Andrew Fletcher dies at 60
Andrew Fletcher performs in Italy in 2018 with Depeche Mode.
rest in peace

Depeche Mode's Andrew Fletcher dies at 60

Strong earthquake hits southern Peru
Peru.
shaken up

Strong earthquake hits southern Peru

Most Popular

Is the war shifting in Russia's favor?
Vladimir Putin.
Opinion

Is the war shifting in Russia's favor?

Uvalde gunman was inside school for an hour as parents urged police to act
Uvalde school memorial
'Go in there! Go in there!'

Uvalde gunman was inside school for an hour as parents urged police to act

The Ginni Thomas problem
Ginni Thomas.
Opinion

The Ginni Thomas problem