Born April 13, 1939, in County Derry, Northern Ireland; son of Patrick (a farmer) and Margaret Heaney; married Marie Devlin, 1965; children: Michael, Christopher, Catherine. Education: Attended St. Columb's College, Derry; Queen's University, Belfast, B.A. (first class honors), 1961; St. Joseph's College of Education, teacher's certificate, 1962.
Office—19 Strand Rd., Dublin 4, Ireland.
Poet, translator, educator, and critic. Worked as secondary school teacher in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1962-63; St. Joseph's College of Education, Belfast, lecturer, 1963-66; Queen's University, Belfast, lecturer in English, 1966-72; freelance writer, 1972-75; Carysfort College, Dublin, Ireland, lecturer, 1976-82; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, visiting lecturer, 1979, visiting professor, 1982-86, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, 1986-96; Oxford University, Oxford, England, professor of poetry, 1990-94. Visiting lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1970-71. Has given numerous lectures and poetry readings at universities in England, Ireland, and the United States.
Irish Academy of Letters (Aosdana), American Academy of Arts and Letters (honorary foreign member), American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Royal Dublin Society.
Eric Gregory Award, 1966, Cholmondeley Award, 1967, Somerset Maugham Award, 1968, and Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, 1968, all for Death of a Naturalist; Poetry Book Society Choice citation, 1969, for Door into the Dark; Irish Academy of Letters award, 1971; writer-in-residence award, American Irish Foundation, and Denis Devlin Award, both 1973, both for Wintering Out; E. M. Forster Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1975; W. H. Smith Award, Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, and Poetry Book Society Choice citation, all 1976, all for North; Bennett Award, Hudson Review, 1982; D.H.L., Fordham University and Queen's University, Belfast, both 1982, Harvard University, 1998, University of Wales, 1999, University of Birmingham, 2000, Rhodes University, South Africa and University of East Anglia, 2002, and University of Dundee and University of London, 2003; Los Angeles Times Book Prize nomination, 1984, and PEN Translation Prize for Poetry, 1985, both for Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish; Whitbread Award, 1987, for The Haw Lantern, and 1997, for The Spirit Level; Lannam Foundation award, 1990; Premio Mondello (Palermo, Sicily), 1993; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1995; St. Louis Literary Award, 1998; Irish Times Award, 1999, for Opened Ground; Whitbread awards for poetry and book of the year, 1999, both for Beowulf; Wilfred Owen Award for poetry, 2000; shortlisted for T. S. Eliot Prize, 2001, for Electric Light; Truman Capote Award for literary criticism, 2003, for Finders Keepers; named commander, Ordre des Arts et Lettres (France); Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry was established at the School of English, Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 2004.
Door into the Dark, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1969.
Wintering Out, Faber (London, England), 1972, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1973.
North, Faber (London, England), 1975, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1976.
Field Work, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1979.
Poems: 1965-1975, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1980.
(Adapter) Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1984, revised edition, with photographs by Rachel Giese, published as Sweeney's Flight, 1992.
Station Island, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1984.
The Haw Lantern, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1987.
New and Selected Poems, 1969-1987, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1990, revised edition published as Selected Poems, 1966-1987, 1991.
Seeing Things: Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.
The Midnight Verdict, Gallery Books (Old Castle, County Meath, Ireland), 1993.
The Spirit Level, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
Electric Light, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2001.
Contributor to 101 Poems against War, edited by Matthew Hollis and Paul Keegan, Faber (London, England), 2003.
Eleven Poems, Festival Publications (Belfast, Northern Ireland), 1965.
(With David Hammond and Michael Longley) Room to Rhyme, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, 1968.
A Lough Neagh Sequence, edited by Harry Chambers and Eric J. Morten, Phoenix Pamphlets Poets Press (Manchester, England), 1969.
Boy Driving His Father to Confession, Sceptre Press (Surrey, England), 1970.
Night Drive: Poems, Richard Gilbertson (Devon, England), 1970.
Land, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1971.
Servant Boy, Red Hanrahan Press (Detroit, MI), 1971.
Stations, Ulsterman Publications (Belfast, Northern Ireland), 1975.
Bog Poems, Rainbow Press (London, England), 1975.
(With Derek Mahon) In Their Element, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, 1977.
After Summer, Deerfield Press, 1978.
Hedge School: Sonnets from Glanmore, Charles Seluzicki (Portland, OR), 1979.
Sweeney Praises the Trees, [New York, NY], 1981.
The Fire i' the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1975.
Robert Lowell: A Memorial Address and Elegy, Faber (London, England), 1978.
Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1980.
The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1988.
The Place of Writing, Scholars Press, 1989.
The Redress of Poetry, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.
(With Alan Brownjohn) New Poems: 1970-1971, Hutchinson (London, England), 1971.
Soundings: An Annual Anthology of New Irish Poetry, Blackstaff Press (Belfast, Northern Ireland), 1972.
Soundings II, Blackstaff Press (Belfast, Northern Ireland), 1974.
(With Ted Hughes) The Rattle Bag: An Anthology of Poetry (juvenile), Faber (London, England), 1982.
The Essential Wordsworth, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1988.
The May Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge Poetry, 1993.
(With Ted Hughes) The School Bag, Faber (London, England), 1997.
Yeats, Faber (London, England), 2000.
(With John Montague) The Northern Muse (sound recording), Claddagh Records, 1969.
The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' "Philoctetes" (drama; produced by Yale Repertory Theater, 1997; produced in Oxford, England, 1999), Farrar, Straus, 1991.
(Translator, with Stanislaw Baranczak) Laments, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
(Translator) Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
(Translator) Leos Janacek, Diary of One Who Vanished: A Song Cycle, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
(Author of introduction) Darcy O'Brien, A Way of Life, Like Any Other, New York Review Books (New York, NY), 2001.
(Translator) Sorley McLean, Hallaig, 2002.
(Translator) The Midnight Verdict (collection), Dufour Editions, 2002.
(Author of introduction) David Thomson, The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend, Counterpoint, 2002.
(With Liam O'Flynn) The Poet and the Piper (sound recording), Claddagh Records, 2003.
(Author of introduction) Thomas Flanagan, There You Are: Writing on Irish and American Literature and History, edited by Christopher Cahill, New York Review Books (New York, NY), 2003.
(Translator) The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' "Antigone," Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to books, including The Writers: A Sense of Ireland, O'Brien Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1979; Canopy: A Work for Voice and Light in Harvard Yard, Harvard University Art Museums, 1997; Healing Power: The Epic Poise—A Celebration of Ted Hughes, edited by Nick Gammage, Faber, 1999; For the Love of Ireland: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers, Ballantine, 2001; and Don't Ask Me What I Mean: Poets in Their Own Words, Picador, 2003. Contributor of poetry and essays to periodicals, including New Statesman, Listener, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and London Review of Books.
Heaney's papers and letters are collected at Emory University, Atlanta, GA.
The film Bye-Child, directed by Bernard MacLaverty, is based on a poem by Heaney.
Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has been widely recognized as perhaps the best-known living poet to write in English. A native of Northern Ireland and son of a cattle farmer, and a man who divides his time between his Dublin home and a teaching position at Harvard University, Heaney has attracted a readership on several continents and has won prestigious literary awards in England, Ireland, and the United States. As Blake Morrison noted in his work Seamus Heaney, the author is "that rare thing, a poet rated highly by critics and academics yet popular with 'the common reader.'" Part of Heaney's popularity stems from his subject matter: modern Northern Ireland, its farms and cities beset with civil strife, its natural culture and language overrun by English rule. Washington Post Book World contributor Marjorie Perloff suggested that Heaney has been successful "because of his political position: the Catholic farm boy from County Derry transformed into the sensitive witness to and historian of the Irish troubles, as those troubles have shaped and altered individual lives." New York Review of Books essayist Richard Murphy described Heaney as "the poet who has shown the finest art in presenting a coherent vision of Ireland, past and present." Heaney's poetry was described by Robert Buttel in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography as "manifestly regional and largely rural in subject matter and traditional in structure—a poetry that appears to be a deliberate step back into a pre-modernist world of William Wordsworth and John Clare and to represent a rejection of most contemporary poetic fashions."
Inevitably, Heaney has been compared with Irish poet William Butler Yeats; in fact, several critics called Heaney the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. However, New York Review of Books contributor Richard Ellmann once wrote: "After the heavily accented melodies of Yeats, and that poet's elegiac celebrations of imaginative glories, Seamus Heaney addresses his readers in a quite different key. He does not overwhelm his subjects; rather he allows them a certain freedom from him, and his sharp conjunctions with them leave their authority and his undiminished." Elizabeth Jennings made a similar observation in the Spectator, calling Heaney "an extremely Irish poet most especially in language, but he is not a poet in the Yeatsian mould; not for him high-mannered seriousness or intentional rhetoric. He is serious, of course, but it is the gravity which grows in his roots, not one which is obtrusive in the finished artefact."
A Northern Ireland Childhood
Heaney once described himself in the New York Times Book Review as one of a group of Catholics in Northern Ireland who "emerged from a hidden, a buried life and entered the realm of education." In his Nobel lecture, Heaney tells the story of how, as a child, he listened to the different radio programs that somewhat fitfully reached the makeshift aerial that was tied to a tree next to his parents' farmhouse. Heaney eagerly took in a blend of diverse influences, including Irish and English voices, detective serials, and reports of the seemingly distant battles of World War II. He reflected, "That child was already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament"—a future forever marked by the violent political conflict between the British-backed Protestants and militant Irish nationalists, a struggle that has fractured his nation. At age eleven, Heaney left the family farm to study on scholarship at a boarding school in Belfast. Access to the world of English, Irish, and American letters—first at St. Columb's College and then at Queen's University, Belfast—was a pivotal experience for the poet, who was especially moved by artists who created poetry out of their local and native backgrounds—authors such as Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and Robert Frost. Recalling his time in Belfast, Heaney once noted: "I learned that my local County Derry [childhood] experience, which I had considered archaic and irrelevant to 'the modern world' was to be trusted. They taught me that trust and helped me to
articulate it." Searching his cultural roots, but also letting his literary education enrich his expression, Heaney began to craft "a poetry concerned with nature, the shocks and discoveries of childhood experience on a farm, the mythos of the locale—in short, a regional poetry," according to Robert Buttel in his book Seamus Heaney.
Heaney's sort of poetry, Buttel continued, was, in the early 1960s, "essentially a counter-poetry, decidedly not fashionable at the time. To write such poetry called for a measure of confidence if not outright defiance." According to Morrison, a "general spirit of reverence toward the past helped Heaney resolve some of his awkwardness about being a writer: he could serve his own community by preserving in literature its customs and crafts, yet simultaneously gain access to a larger community of letters." Indeed, Heaney's earliest poetry collections—Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark—evoke "a hard, mainly rural life with rare exactness," in the words of Parnassus contributor Michael Wood. Using descriptions of rural laborers and their tasks and contemplations of natural phenomena—filtered sometimes through childhood and sometimes through adulthood—Heaney seeks the self by way of the perceived experience, celebrating life force through earthly things. "Digging" is the first poem in Death of a Naturalist and one of his best known. In it, the speaker tries to reconcile his poetic vocation with the Irish rural tradition from which he comes, a tradition embodied initially by the poet's father, who is heard digging outside the window as the poet writes. The sight of his father stooped over his spade triggers in the poet childhood memories of his father digging potatoes and his grandfather cutting peat. The poet describes both activities with great care and admiration, focusing not only on the earthy smells, sounds, and rhythms of digging, but also on the refined technique with which both men practiced their occupation. "By God," the poet reflects, "the old man could handle a spade. / Just like his old man." In a romantic fashion, then, digging represents both an art form and a means of identification with his native people and land—his own "living roots." And though he feels briefly alienated from his forebears' tradition—"I've not spade to follow men like them"—he quickly realizes that poetry itself is a form of digging, of "going down and down" into memory to express the experience of his father and grandfather. Speaking of Heaney's early poems, Buttel wrote in Seamus Heaney: "Augmenting the physical authenticity and the clean, decisive art of the best of the early poems, mainly the ones concerned with the impact of the recollected initiatory experiences of childhood and youth, is the human voice that speaks in them. At its most distinctive it is unpretentious, open, modest, and yet poised, aware." Newsweek correspondent Jack Kroll noted that in these first poems, Heaney "makes you see, hear, smell, taste this life, which in his words is not provincial, but parochial; provincialism hints at the minor or the mediocre, but all parishes, rural or urban, are equal as communities of the human spirit."
As a poet from the north of Ireland, Heaney often reflects in his work upon the "Troubles," the often-violent political struggles between some Northern Irish Protestants and their British allies and the militant Irish Republican Army and its supporters at home and abroad. The poet sought to weave the ongoing Irish troubles into a broader historical frame embracing the general human situation in the books Wintering Out and North. According to Tyrus Miller in Poetry for Students, "Written during some of the worst years of sectarian violence in the history of modern Ulster, a time when riots, bombings, and police internments became a way of life for the residents of Belfast and other cities of Northern Ireland, Wintering Out represents a kind of poetical hibernation, Heaney's casting off of inessentials and the reduction of his lines to a naked minimum, in order to continue writing in a bitter and impoverished time." Heaney's well-known poem "Midnight" appears in Wintering Out. In the poem and throughout the volume, Heaney addresses the theme of Irish identity through a series of recurring symbols of Ireland: the wolf and wolfhound, rain, the forest, the bog, and the vestigial Irish language. "Midnight" focuses primarily on the fact that since the incursion of outside interests in Ireland, the wolf native to the island "has died out." To the speaker, this only parallels a number of other ways in which his country has been ravished: the Irish wolfhound, he believes, has been misbred into a lesser breed of dog, the forests have been chopped down and "coopered into wine casks," and the Irish "tongue," through centuries of English domination, has been suppressed. In short, the features that form the core identity of the Irish race are either diluted or buried entirely. But in terms of Heaney's other early work, such suppression is only civilization's attempt to hide the tribal instinct that leads to cruelty and violence. This is the poet's explanation for the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, for the "corpse and carrion" in the first stanza, and for his own violent impulse that suggests itself in the last images of "Midnight." Heaney's poems do not endorse the violence that has dominated his generation's experience in Ireland. Rather, the poet attempts to understand it as a primal impulse shared by all humans and exacerbated by circumstances: by loss and fear, by darkness, and by the continual "rain" that sometimes suggests fertility but at other times represents despair. While some reviewers criticized Heaney for being an apologist and mythologizer, New York Review of Books correspondent Richard Murphy suggested that his poetry "is seriously attempting to purge our land of a terrible blood-guilt, and inwardly acknowledging our enslavement to a sacrificial myth. I think it may go a long way toward freeing us from the myth by portraying it in its true archaic shape and color, not disguising its brutality."
Morrison suggested that the role of political spokesman has never particularly suited Heaney. The author "has written poems directly about the Troubles as well as elegies for friends and acquaintances who have died in them; he has tried to discover a historical framework in which to interpret the current unrest; and he has taken on the mantle of public spokesman, someone looked to for comment and guidance," noted Morrison. "Yet he has also shown signs of deeply resenting this role, defending the right of poets to be private and apolitical, and questioning the extent to which poetry, however 'committed,' can influence the course of history." In the New Boston Review, Shaun O'Connell contended that even Heaney's most overtly political poems contain depths that subtly alter their meanings. "Those who see Seamus Heaney as a symbol of hope in a troubled land are not, of course, wrong to do so," O'Connell stated, "though they may be missing much of the undercutting complexities of his poetry, the backwash of ironies which make him as bleak as he is bright." Any claim to see Heaney as nonpolitical, however, is countered by the poet's ongoing involvement as fundraiser, supporter, representative, ally of peace and humanitarian causes and against torture and war.
Moves to Dublin
In 1972 Heaney left Belfast for the opportunity to live in a cottage outside Dublin, where he could write full time. The move had political overtones even though Heaney made it for financial reasons; Morrison observed that the subsequent poetry in Field Work "is deeply conscious of that move into the countryside." Morrison added: "It was not surprising that the move should have been seen by some as a betrayal of the Northern Catholic community and should have aroused in Heaney feelings
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of unease and even guilt. One important consequence was the new seriousness he brought to his thinking about the writer and his responsibilities." At his retreat in Glanmore, Heaney reasserted his determination to produce fresh aesthetic objects, to pursue his personal feelings as member of—and not spokesman for—church, state, and tribe. One of Heaney's most popular poems, "A Drink of Water," appeared in Field Work. It is part of a series of elegies, or poems composed to lament the dead, that comprise much of the first part of the book. In it, the speaker reveals through images and sounds the character of an old woman, presumably a neighbor, who used to come to his well each morning to fill her water bucket. The descriptions in the first eight lines are ones of old age and decrepitude, foreshadowing the woman's death. In the last six lines, she has vanished from the poem physically, but while in life she depended on the favors of the speaker, in death she has become the "Giver," providing the poet with inspiration and perhaps representing to him the maturing process of poetry itself—the aging of his muse. Filled with careful rhythms and intricately patterned sonic elements, the poem is an example of the sonnet in contemporary poetry—a form Heaney explores extensively in Field Work. Denis Donoghue suggested in the New York Times Book Review that in Field Work "Heaney is writing more powerfully than ever, more fully in possession of his feeling, more at home in his style. He has given up, at least for the moment, the short line of his earlier poems, which often went along with a brittle, self-protective relation to his experience. The new long line is more thoughtful, it brings a meditative music to bear on fundamental themes of person and place, the mutuality of ourselves and the world."
During this time, Heaney also undertook the translation and adaptation of the Irish lyric poem Buile Suibhne. The work concerns an ancient king who, cursed by the church, is transformed from a warrior-king into a bird. The narrative follows Sweeney's exile from humanity and his wanderings and hardships as a bird, mixing prose descriptions of events with lyrical renderings of Sweeney's ravings as he responds to the harshness and beauty of nature. Heaney's translation of the epic was published as Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography Buttel contended that the poem "reveals a heartfelt affinity with the dispossessed king who responds with such acute sensitivity, poetic accuracy, and imaginative force to his landscape." New York Times Book Review contributor Brendan Kennelly also deemed the poem "a balanced statement about a tragically unbalanced mind. One feels that this balance, urbanely sustained, is the product of a long, imaginative bond between Mr. Heaney and Sweeney."
This bond is extended into Heaney's 1984 volume Station Island. The volume is made up of three sections. The opening part consists of lyrical poems about events in everyday life. The title sequence, which comprises the second section, is based on a three-day pilgrimage undertaken by Irish Catholics to Station Island, where they seek spiritual renewal. While on Station Island, Heaney ruminates on personal and historical events and encounters the souls of dead acquaintances and Irish literary figures who inspire him to reflect upon his life and art. In the third section, "Sweeney Redivivus," Heaney takes up Sweeney's voice once more. Buttel saw these poems as part of a larger theme in Station Island; namely, "a personal drama of guilt, lost innocence, and lost moral and religious certainty played against the redemptions of love, faith in the integrity of craft and of dedicated individuals, and ties with the universal forces operating in nature and history."
Language—and the action of writing—have always been central preoccupations for Heaney, but especially so in his more recent works. Morrison contended that "Heaney's preoccupation with language and with questions of authorial control makes him part of a still-larger modern intellectual movement which has emphasized that language is not a transparent medium by means of which a writer says what he intends to, but rather something self-generating, infinitely productive, exceeding us as individuals." As A. Alvarez put it in the New York Review of Books, Heaney "is not rural and sturdy and domestic, with his feet planted firmly in the Irish mud, but is instead an ornamentalist, a word collector, a connoisseur of fine language for its own sake." Washington Post Book World contributor John B. Breslin wrote: "Like every poet, Heaney is a professional deceiver, saying one thing and meaning another, in a timeless effort at rescuing our language from the half-attention we normally accord it. Words matter because they are his matter, and ours, the inescapable medium of exchange between two otherwise isolated sets of experience."
This fascination with words is evident in The Haw Lantern, published in 1987. Times Literary Supplement reviewer Neil Corcoran felt that the poems included therein "have a very contemporary sense of how writing is elegy to experience." W. S. DiPiero imagined Heaney's intent in the American Scholar: "Whatever the occasion—childhood, farm life, politics and culture in Northern Ireland, other poets past and present—Heaney strikes time and again at the taproot of language, examining its genetic structures, trying to discover how it has served, in all its changes, as a culture bearer, a world to contain imaginations, at once a rhetorical weapon and nutriment of spirit. He writes of these matters with rare discrimination and resourcefulness, and a winning impatience with received wisdom." Heaney, declared Buttel, remains "in a long tradition of Irish writers who have flourished in the British literary scene, showing the Britons new possibilities for poetry in their mother tongue."
With the publication of Selected Poems, 1966-1987, Heaney marked the beginning of a new direction in his career. Poetry contributor William Logan commented of this new direction, "The younger Heaney wrote like a man possessed by demons, even when those demons were very literary demons; the older Heaney seems to wonder, bemusedly, what sort of demon he has become himself." In Seeing Things Heaney demonstrates even more clearly this shift in perspective. Jefferson Hunter, reviewing the book for the Virginia Quarterly Review, maintained that collection takes a more spiritual, less concrete approach. "Words like 'spirit' and 'pure,' as opposed to words like 'reek' and 'hock,' have never figured largely in Heaney's poetry," Hunter explained. In some poems in Seeing Things these words "create a new distanced perspective and indeed a new mood" in which "'things beyond measure' or 'things in the offing' or 'the longed-for' can sometimes be sensed, if never directly seen." Heaney also creates a direct link between himself and some of his ancient poetic predecessors, Hunter continued. "'The Golden Bough' translates the famous passage of Aeneid VI wherein the Sybil tells the hero what talisman he must carry on his trip to the underworld, while 'The Crossing' translates Dante's and Virgil's confrontation with the angry Charon in Inferno III."
Awarded the Nobel Prize
When Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in October of 1995, it was an occasion of little surprise to the literary world, except perhaps for a cynical contingent who marveled at the fact that someone so well loved by the general public should receive the prize. The poet had been shortlisted for the award a number of times, and yet, when the announcement came Heaney was nowhere to be found—he was vacationing in a remote corner of Greece and only learned of his good fortune when he called home two days later to talk with his children. This would, however, seem to confirm an impression made a few years earlier, when Craig Raine wrote in Vanity Fair: "Heaney is a writer who, uniquely in my experience, flinches at even the mention of the Nobel Prize." The timing of the Nobel Prize was tied to the concurrent peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, Heaney's birthplace. A New York Times reporter explained:
"The Swedish Academy praised Mr. Heaney 'for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.' It also praised Heaney, a Roman Catholic, for analyzing the violence in Northern Ireland without recourse to conventional terms." Heaney stated that the $1.1 million in prize money (untaxed in Ireland) would be used to buy privacy and quiet.
Heaney's fans eagerly awaited his next volume of poetry, The Spirit Level, released in May of 1996, a full five years after the publication of Seeing Things. The Spirit Level continues to explore themes of politics, humanism, and nature. "Heaney's latest collection is a moving and human book, one that includes in its composition a plea for hope, for innocence, for balance, and to seek eventually that 'bubble for the spirit level,'" wrote World Literature Today reviewer Sudeep Sen. Donna Seaman remarked in Booklist: "Heaney navigates skillfully from the personal to the universal, from life to death, seeking that precious equilibrium that only poetry can possess."
Regarding Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, New York Times Book Review commentator Edward Mendelson wrote that, "With the prospect of decades of work ahead of him, Heaney has assembled a collection with a satisfying heft and more than enough variety of subject and style to delineate the shape of a long and constantly evolving career. It eloquently confirms his status as the most skillful and profound poet writing in English today." New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani concurred that the collection demonstrates "the consummate virtuosity of his work."
With Electric Light, according to an Economist reviewer, Heaney "returns to the pastoral," though the critic also pointed out, "More striking are recollections of the classical sources of pastoral, as he combines allusions to Homer and Virgil with sightseeing in Greece. The 'Eclogues' of Virgil, written in the aftermath of an era of civil war, provide a suggestive analogy. Mr Heaney translates them, alludes to them and . . . imitates them. . . . Much like Virgil's, they touch on new problems that peace may bring about." According to John Taylor in Poetry, Heaney "notably attempts, as an aging man, to re-experience childhood and early-adulthood perceptions in all their sensate fullness." Taylor felt that Heaney succeeds when "reminiscing verses are moving in this subtle, withheld way," but overall found the volume disappointingly uneven and containing "more exercises than deeply-felt memorials." In contrast, Paul Mariani in America found Electric Light to be "a Janus-faced book, elegiac" and "heartbreaking even." Mariani noted in particular Heaney's frequent elegies to other poets and artists, and called Heaney "one of the handful writing today who has mastered that form as well."
In the prose work The Redress of Poetry, according to James Longenbach in the Nation, "Heaney wants to think of poetry not only as something that intervenes in the world, redressing or correcting imbalances, but also as something that must be redressed—re-established, celebrated as itself." The book contains a selection of lectures the poet delivered at Oxford University on subjects ranging from the poetry of Christopher Marlowe to the more-recent works of Philip Larkin. New York Times Book Review contributor J. D. McClatchy called the lectures "a meditation on the uses of art and power, a fresh and astute defense of poetry against any attempt to reduce it to a relevant or useful commodity." However, in the Times Literary Supplement, John Bayley criticized Heaney for not providing fresh ideas about poetry, saying the book "gives the impression of being adjusted with courtly discretion to an audience who expect the familiar rather than the new." Bayley continued: "The poet as diplomat is an honourable and unusual role . . . but the critic exercising the same kind of function runs the risk of giving pleasure without surprise or illumination."
Earns Truman Capote Award
Heaney's Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001 earned the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, the largest annual prize for literary criticism in the English language. John Carey in the London Sunday Times proposed that Heaney's "is not just another book of literary criticism, nor even just a book about poetry by the greatest living poet. It is a record of Seamus Heaney's thirty-year struggle with the demon of doubt. The questions that afflict him are basic. What is the good of poetry? How can it contribute to society? Is it worth the dedication it demands?" As Patricia Monaghan noted in Booklist, "Not surprisingly for a poet from a war-wracked land, Heaney comes back again and again to the question of how poetry can matter against human savagery. Again and again, he concludes that beauty and the meaning it gives to life must matter." Heaney himself described his essays as "testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for."
In addition to writing poetry and criticism, Heaney has also served as a translator of other poets' work. His version of Sophocles' Philoctetes earned praise from critics when it was performed at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1998. His translation of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf was considered groundbreaking because of the freedom he took in using modern language. Several reviewers noted that Beowulf has become something of a tired chestnut in the literary world, but credited Heaney with breathing new life into the ancient classic. Malcolm Jones in Newsweek stated: "Heaney's own poetic vernacular—muscular language so rich with the tones and smell of earth that you almost expect to find a few crumbs of dirt clinging to his lines—is the perfect match for the Beowulf poet's Anglo-Saxon. . . . As retooled by Heaney, Beowulf should easily be good for another millennium."
Heaney's Beowulf translation stirred up some controversy when in 2000 it was awarded the Whitbread Award, one of Great Britain's top literary honors. Stiff competition came in the form of a book in J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" novel series, and Rowling's supporters on the Whitbread judges panel felt that as a translation, Beowulf was not eligible for consideration; others argued that the award should be given to a more fresh, modern work than Beowulf. On the other hand, Gary McKeone commented in the Christian Science Monitor that Heaney's translation has "true literary merit. This is translation at its potent best. . . . Heaney's subtle, luminous vernacular ignites the poem for a new generation of readers."
If you enjoy the works of Seamus Heaney
If you enjoy the works of Seamus Heaney, you may also want to check out the following:
In an interview published in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden, Heaney offered some insight into his craftsmanship: "One thing I try to avoid ever saying at readings is 'my poem'—because that sounds like a presumption. The poem came, it came. I didn't go and fetch it. To some extent you wait for it, you coax it in the door when it gets there. I prefer to think of myself as the host to the thing rather than a big-game hunter." Elsewhere in the same interview he commented: "You write books of poems because that is a fulfillment, a making; it's a making sense of your life and it gives achievement, but it also gives you a sense of growth."
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BORN: 1939, County Derry, Northern Ireland
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
Death of a Naturalist: (1966)
The Haw Lantern (1987)
Beowulf: A New Translation (1999)
District and Circle (2006)
From the beginning, critical as well as popular acclaim has greeted each volume of Seamus Heaney's poetry. In 1966 his first full-length book appeared. Few would have predicted the impact such poetry would have. It is, after all, a poetry about rural subjects and traditional in structure—a poetry that appears to be a deliberate step back into a premodernist world and that rejects most contemporary poetic fashions.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in Northern Ireland Heaney was born April 13, 1939, in a rural area near Ulster, Northern Ireland. His childhood shaped much of his poetry, including the first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), for which he won immediate success. In most of these poems, Heaney describes a young man's response to beautiful and threatening aspects of nature. In “Digging,” the poem that opens this volume, he evokes the rural landscape where he was raised and comments on the care and skill with which his father and ancestors farmed the land. Heaney announces that as a poet he will metaphorically “dig” with his pen. In fact, many of the poems in his volume Door into the Dark (1969) search for hidden meaning.
Seamus Heaney was born the oldest of Margaret and Patrick Heaney's nine children and lived in Mossbawn, the place of the family farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland, about thirty miles northwest of Belfast. This landscape offered a definite sense of belonging and tradition and lifestyle that became part of the local rhythm.
Old and New Conflicts The landscape also offered reminders of ancient conflicts and losses, some reaching back in history to the threshold of myth. Old tensions also extended in the other direction, right into the present. Although his family was part of the Catholic majority in the local area living in relative harmony with the Protestants, at an early age Heaney was conscious of living in what he has called the “split culture of Ulster.” Between the villages of Castledown and Toome, he was “symbolically placed between the marks of English influence and the lure of the native experience, between ‘the demesne’ [representing English and Unionist power] and the [native] ‘bog’…. The demesne was walled, wooded, beyond our ken.”
In the decade before Heaney was born, the people of Ireland were embroiled in a devastating civil war over the country's fate as either a dominion of Great Britain or as an independent nation, and the conflict remained far from resolved. According to a treaty signed in 1921, Northern Ireland was established as an administrative region of Great Britain separate from Ireland, and maintained its own government. Some of its citizens—primarily Catholics known as Nationalists—believed that Northern Ireland should be reunited with the Republic of Ireland to form an independent nation free of British control. Other citizens of Northern Ireland—primarily Protestants known as Unionists—believed that Northern Ireland should remain a part of Great Britain. This led to a decades-long series of violent clashes between the two groups known as The Troubles. Heaney grew up in the region at the heart of these conflicts, which grew more violent as the years passed.
Heaney attended St. Columb's College in Londonderry and then Queen's University in Belfast; all the while, He carried with him the impressions of his childhood world that would become such an important part of the substance of Death of a Naturalist. He studied at Queen's until 1961 when he received a first-class honors degree in English language and literature. The following year, he took a postgraduate course of study leading to a teacher's certificate at St. Joseph's College of Education in Belfast. These development years provided an essential prelude to the writing of his poems.
Teaching While he was teaching at St. Thomas's Secondary School in Ballymurphy, Belfast, from 1962–1963, Heaney collected some of the first poems that were published in Death of a Naturalist. From 1963 through 1966 he was a lecturer in English at St. Joseph's College. It was during these years when he was associated with the Hobsbaum group that he became firmly established in the literary world. Three of his poems published in the New Statesman in December 1964 came to the attention of Faber and Faber, who eventually became his chief publisher. Heaney also obtained at position at Queen's University where he had once attended. In 1965 his Eleven Poems, a pamphlet, was published by Festival Publications, Belfast, and in August of the same year he was married to Marie Devlin. Death of a Naturalist, which appeared in May 1966, brought Heaney the E. C. Gregory Award. In July of that year, his son Michael was born.
After the publication of Door into the Dark in 1969, Heaney's poetic views quickly came under the heavy pressure of political events and violence in Northern Ireland. Heaney left the political turmoil in Northern Ireland to teach at University of California, Berkeley, in 1970, only to find that Berkeley was experiencing its own turmoil over the Vietnam War at that time.
Writing in Wicklow The source of his writing remained in Ireland. While in Berkeley, he began writing a series of twenty-one prose paragraphs that drew on his childhood. These would be published in pamphlet form in Belfast with the title Stations (1975). Soon after the family's return from California, Heaney resigned his position at Queen's University and moved his growing family south to Glanmore, County Wicklow, in the Irish Republic. During these years, as he attempted to earn his living as a writer, he gave several poetry readings in the United States and England, wrote essays, and edited two poetry
anthologies: Soundings: An Annual Anthology of New Irish Poetry (1972) and Soundings II (1974).
In 1975, Heaney assumed a teaching position at Caryfort College, a teacher-training institution in Dublin, where he became head of the Department of English. In the following year, after four years in Glanmore, he and his family moved to Dublin, acquiring a house along the bay about halfway between the center of the city and Dun Laoghaire. Heaney kept up his transatlantic ties, frequently giving readings of his poems in America. The connection with America became stronger after 1981, when he resigned his position at Caryfort College and, in February 1982, began a five-year arrangement to teach each spring semester at Harvard, where he had already taught in the spring semester of 1979. The arrangement was now permanent, with Heaney acquiring the title Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Another tie with America was Robert Lowell, with whom the Heaneys became close during the last few years of Lowell's life.
A Major Poet Following the well-received Field Work, Heaney published Selected Poems 1965–1975 and Preoccupations: Selected Prose, both in 1980. Preoccupations offers candid and engaging accounts of his poetic origins and development; the critical essays on other poets are also revealing of his own interests. Another of his preoccupations has been the medieval Irish work Buile Suibhne, a story of a mad northern king transformed into a kind of bird-man. Heaney followed this with a translation of Beowulf in 1999 and further collections of both prose and poetry in the new century.
Works in Literary Context
Depictions of Northern Ireland In 1995, Heaney became the fourth Irish writer and second Irish poet to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The first was William Butler Yeats whose influence can clearly be seen in Heaney's work. Part of Heaney's popularity, however, stems from his unique subject matter—modern Northern Ireland, its farms and cities beset with civil strife, its natural culture and language overrun by English rule. The landscape he was born into offered a definite sense of place and tradition. Critics have seen this in both the North and Wintering Out collections.
American Modernism In 1970, Heaney and his family moved to America. Heaney became guest lecturer at the University of California Berkeley, where we was exposed to the poetry of Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Robert Bly, and, perhaps most importantly, William Carlos Williams. This exposure helped loosen his own verse in Wintering Out so that it ceased being “as tightly strung across its metrical shape.”
Ancient Traditions and Myths Heaney's preoccupation with ancient traditions and myths—and not just those of Ireland—are evident in many of his works. His Bog Poems recall both the myths of ancient Celtic peoples and the history of those who invaded the region such as the Norse. One of Heaney's most successful projects was a modern translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, considered one of the greatest mythical tales of Europe. Heaney has also translated a series of laments from sixteenth-century Poland, and has written two plays that are updates of ancient Greek works by the classic dramatist Sophocles.
Works in Critical Context
A native of Northern Ireland who divides his time between a home in Dublin and a teaching position at Harvard University, Heaney has attracted a readership on two continents and has won prestigious literary awards in England, Ireland, and the United States.
Heaney's ambiguous status as an “émigré” may well have contributed to the rather cool, even sour, reception of North by critics in Belfast. The reception elsewhere, however, was mostly positive, as in Anthony Thwaite's praise in the Times Literary Supplement of the “pure and scrupulous tact” of the poems, which are “solid, beautifully wrought.” Popular response is measurable by the six thousand copies sold in the first month. The book also won the W. H. Smith Award and the Duff Cooper Prize, which was presented, in accordance with Heaney's wishes, by Robert Lowell. It was also the Poetry Book Society Choice.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Heaney's famous contemporaries include:
Frank McCourt (1931–): Irish-American author of the award-winning 1996 memoir Angela's Ashes (1996).
Peter O’Toole (1932–): Academy Award–winning Irish actor famed for such films as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Stunt Man (1980).
Ted Kooser (1939–): The Poet Laureate of the United States from 2004–2006 and winner of a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Gerry Adams (1948–): President of Sinn Féin, an Irish Republican political organization.
Shane McGowan (1957–): Lead singer and songwriter for the Irish band The Pogues.
Field Work Generally, reviewers of Heaney's fifth major poetry collection, Field Work, treated Heaney as an important literary figure, placing him in the same poetic pantheon as William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and other major poets. Denis Donoghue suggests in the New York Times Book Review that in Field Work “Heaney is writing more powerfully than ever, more fully in possession of his feeling, more at home in his style.”
Responses to Literature
- What is the connection between Heaney's poetry and Northern Ireland? Is he nostalgic or bitter about the places of his childhood?
- As a Catholic farmer in a Protestant country, Heaney grew up in many ways an outsider before moving to County Wicklow in 1972. How does this theme of polar opposites and outsiders appear in Heaney's work?
- Many critics note that Heaney's work is at least superficially easy to understand, but also that many of his poems are also about the making of poetry. Choose one passage that illustrates his approach to writing poetry and write a paper discussing Heaney's craftsmanship.
- Heaney won the Whitbread Prize for his translation of Beowulf in the year 2000 over other contenders like the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Write a paper evaluating the judge's decision. Be sure to research and reference the actual criteria used by the judges.
- All twentieth-century Irish literature has been colored on some level by Ireland's relationship with England. Research the political situation in Ireland and discuss how Heaney addresses the situation in his poetry. Be sure to include specific references to the poetry.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Heaney's work is often inspired by the landscape of his home-land and the rich history attached to it. Other works deeply rooted in the historical significance of landscape include:
“Nature” (1836), a collection of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's famous essay details the many practical, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits of the American landscape.
Wuthering Heights (1847), a novel by Emily Brontë. The story of a dark romance in which the bleak moors of northern England feature almost as a character in their own right.
West-Running Brook (1928), a book of poems by Robert Frost. This collection of poetry was created at the height of Frost's illustrious career. Many poems are inspired by the New Hampshire countryside.
Out of Africa (1937), a memoir by Isak Dinesen. This memoir by Danish writer Dinesen covers her life on a farm in Kenya in the first part of the twentieth century.
Andrews, Elmer. The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: All the Realms of Whisper. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Seamus Heaney. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Burris, Sidney. The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990.
Buttel, Robert. Seamus Heaney. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1975.
Foster, John Wilson. The Achievement of Seamus Heaney. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1995.
Garatt, Robert F., ed. Critical Essays on Seamus Heaney. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall International, 1995.
Morrison, Blake. Seamus Heaney. London: Methuen, 1975.
Vendler, Helen. Seamus Heaney. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Alvarez, A. “A Fine Way with the Language.” New York Review of Books (March 6, 1980).
Carson, Ciaran. “Escaped from the Massacre?” Honest Ulsterman (Winter 1975): vol. 10.
Colby Quarterly (March 1994).
Parini, Jay. “Seamus Heaney: The Ground Possessed.” Southern Review (Winter 1979).
Perloff, Marjorie. “Seamus Heaney: Peat, Politics and Poetry.” Washington Post Book World (January 1981).
Frangsmyr, Tore, ed. Seamus Heaney—Biography. Accessed February 2, 2008, from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/ 1995/heaney-bio.html.
Seamus Justin Heaney
Seamus Justin Heaney
The poetry of Seamus Justin Heaney (born 1939) reveals his skill with language and his command of form and technique. In his poems, Heaney balances personal, topical, and universal themes. He approaches his themes from a modest perspective, creating depth of meaning and insight while remaining accessible to a wide audience.
Seamus Justin Heaney's attempts to develop poetic language in which meaning and sound are intimately related result in concentrated, sensually evocative poems characterized by assonant phrasing, richly descriptive adjectives, and witty metaphors. Critics note that Heaney is concerned with many of contemporary Northern Ireland's social and cultural divisions. For example, Irish and Gaelic colloquialisms are often intermingled with more direct and straightforward English words for a language that is both resonant and controlled. Viewing the art of poetry as a craft, Heaney stresses the importance of technique as a means to channel creative energies toward sophisticated metaphysical probings. He explores a wide range of subjects in his poems, including such topics as nature, love, the relationship between contemporary issues and historical patterns, and legend and myth. Although some critics debate Robert Lowell's assessment of him as "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats," they agree that Heaney is a poet of consistent achievement. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.
Born April 13, 1939, Heaney's childhood in a rural area near Ulster, Northern Ireland, informs much of his poetry, including his first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), for which he won immediate popular and critical success. In most of these poems, Heaney describes a young man's responses to beautiful and threatening aspects of nature. In "Digging," the poem which opens this volume, he evokes the rural landscape where he was raised and comments on the care and skill with which his father and ancestors farmed the land. Heaney announces that as a poet he will metaphorically "dig" with his pen. In many of the poems in his next volume, Door into the Dark (1969), he probes beneath the surface of things to search for hidden meaning. Along with pastoral poems, Heaney focuses on rural laborers and the craftsmanship they display in their work.
Heaney left Northern Ireland when the "troubles" resumed in 1969. After teaching in the United States, he settled with his family in the Republic of Ireland. The poems in Wintering Out (1972) reveal a gradual shift from personal to public themes. Heaney begins to address the social unrest in Northern Ireland by taking the stance of commentator rather than participant. After having read P. V. Glob's The Bog People, an account of the discovery of well-preserved, centuries-old bodies found in Danish bogs, Heaney wrote a series of poems about Irish bogs. Some of the bodies found in Danish bogs are believed to have been victims of primitive sacrificial rituals, and in Wintering Out Heaney projects a historical pattern of violence that unites the ancient victims with those who have died in contemporary troubles. In North (1975), which some consider his finest collection, Heaney continues to use history and myth to pattern the universality of violence. The poems in this volume reflect his attempt to tighten his lyrics with more concrete language and images.
The poems in Field Work (1979) concern a wide range of subjects. Critics praised several love poems dealing with marriage, particularly "The Harvest Bow," which Harold Bloom called "a perfect lyric." In the ten-poem sequence "The Glanmore Sonnets," Heaney describes a lush landscape and muses on such universal themes as love and mortality, ultimately finding order, meaning, and renewal in art. Other books of significance by Heaney include Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (1980) and Sweeney Astray (1984). The former, which includes prose pieces on the origins and development of his poetry as well as essays on other poets, lends insight into Heaney's poetics. Sweeney Astray, a story-poem based on the ancient Irish tale Buile Suibhne, relates the adventures of Suibhne, or Sweeney, as he is transformed from a warrior-king into a bird because of a curse. The narrative follows Sweeney's exile from humanity and his wanderings and hardships as a bird, mixing prose descriptions of events with lyrical renderings of Sweeney's ravings as he responds to the harshness and beauty of nature.
Heaney's next volume of poetry, Station Island (1984), is made up of three sections. The opening part consists of lyrical poems about events in everyday life. The title sequence, which comprises the second section, is based on a three-day pilgrimage undertaken by Irish Catholics to Station Island, where they seek spiritual renewal. While on Station Island, Heaney ruminates on personal and historical events and encounters the souls of dead acquaintances and Irish literary figures who inspire him to reflect upon his life and art. In the third section, "Sweeney Redivivus," Heaney takes on the persona of Sweeney, attempting to recreate Sweeney's highly sensitized vision of life. Although critics debated the success of the three individual sections, most agreed that Station Island is an accomplished work that displays the range of Heaney's talents.
Abse, Dannie, editor, Best of the Poetry Year 6, Robson, 1979.
Begley, Monie, Rambles in Ireland, Devin-Adair, 1977.
Broadbridge, Edward, editor, Seamus Heaney, Danmarks Radio (Copenhagen), 1977.
Brown, Terence, Northern Voices: Poets from Ulster, Rowman & Littlefield, 1975.
Buttel, Robert, Seamus Heaney, Bucknell University Press, 1975.
Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography: Contemporary Writers, 1960 to the Present, Gale, 1992.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 14, 1980, Volume 25, 1983, Volume 37, 1986. □
Born on 13 April 1939, Irish poet, playwright, critic, and translator Seamus Justin Heaney (1939–), received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 for the lyrical beauty and integrity of his work. The eldest of nine children, Seamus Heaney was born thirty-five miles northwest of Belfast on the small farm of "Mossbawn" near Castledawson, Co. Derry, Northern Ireland, where his father raised cattle. A gifted student, in 1957 Heaney entered Queens University, Belfast, where he was influenced by the poetry of Ted Hughes and Gerard Manley Hopkins and by Anglo-Saxon literature. Heaney married Marie Devlin in 1965 and published his first volume of poems, The Death of a Naturalist, in 1966. Childhood memories, disappointments, fears, and losses that are buried in the land and language and must be "dug up" by the poet are central to Death of a Naturalist as well as to his subsequent books, Door into the Dark (1969) and Wintering Out (1972). During the late 1960s, while teaching at Queens University, Heaney—a constitutional nationalist—became involved in the civil-rights movement for Catholic equality in Northern Ireland. He later moved his family from Belfast to Glanmore Cottage in County Wicklow in 1972. While in Wicklow, Heaney worked as a freelance journalist and published his most highly regarded book, North, in 1975. North was Heaney's most profound historical and mythological exploration of the violence in Northern Ireland. The Heaneys relocated in 1976 to Dublin, where they still reside. During the 1980s Heaney began teaching at Harvard University and helped to launch the Derry-based multicultural art alliance Field Day Theatre Company. Ancient Irish poetry as well as writers as diverse as Wordsworth and Dante and James Joyce and Patrick Kavanagh informed Heaney's Field Work (1979), Sweeney Astray (1983), and Station Island (1984). The Haw Lantern (1989) revealed the influence of contemporary eastern European writers and the increasing internationalization of Heaney's work. The pastoral gave way to the political and the transcendent, and the earthy language of his early work became more abstract and translucent in Seeing Things (1991), The Spirit Level (1996), and Electric Light (2001). These global shifts are recorded in Heaney's prose collections Preoccupations (1980), The Government of the Tongue (1988), and The Redress of Poetry (1995). However, it was the Derry dialect of his youth that inspired Heaney's highly acclaimed translation of Beowulf (1999) and reconfirmed his position in the pantheon of Irish poets.
SEE ALSO Arts: Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts since 1800; Poetry, Modern; Primary Documents: "Punishment" (1975)
Durkan, Michael, and Rand Brandes. Seamus Heaney: A Reference Guide. 1996.
Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966–1996. 1998.
Heaney, Seamus. Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971–2001. 2002.
Seamus Heaney (shā´məs hē´nē), 1939–2013, Irish poet, one of the finest contemporary English poets, b. Londonderry (now Derry), Northern Ireland, grad. Queen's Univ., Belfast (B.A., 1961). In his early works, such as Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969), Heaney is a lyrical nature poet, writing with limpid simplicity about the disappearing world of unspoiled rural Ireland. He moved from Belfast to the Irish Republic in 1972, ultimately settling in Dublin. In works such as North (1975), Field Work (1979), and The Haw Lantern (1987), Heaney attempted to grapple with Ireland's bloody past and troubled present. In Station Island (1984), often declared his best sustained work, he tried to come to terms with his own exile, reworking Dante to dramatize a tragic vision of Irish history. Later poems, alternately elegiac and visionary and filled with a love for the common objects of the world, are included in Seeing Things (1991), The Spirit Level (1996), Electric Light (2001), District and Circle (2006), and Human Chain (2010), which reflects on death, memory, and other preoccupations of old age.
Extremely evocative yet clear and direct, balanced between the personal and the topical, Heaney's carefully crafted poetry has been praised for its powerful imagery, dense yet nuanced language, meaningful content, musical phrasing, and compelling rhythms. Widely recognized as Ireland's greatest poet since William Butler Yeats, Heaney was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. Many of his critical, biographical, and autobiographical essays were collected in Preoccupations (1980), The Government of the Tongue (1989), and Finders Keepers (2002). He was also a skillful translator; his works in this genre include the medieval Irish Sweeney Astray (1984), Sophocles's Philoctetes (tr. as The Cure at Troy, 1990) and Antigone (tr. as The Burial at Thebes, 2004), the highly acclaimed Beowulf (2000), and the libretto of Janáček's song cycle Diary of One Who Vanished (2001). Heaney was also a teacher, at Oxford (1989–94) and Harvard (1985–2006); his Oxford lectures on poetry are in The Redress of Poetry (1995).
See studies by R. Buttel (1975), T. Curtis (1982, repr. 2001), B. Morrison (1982), H. Hart (1992), M. Parker (1993), J. W. Foster (1995), R. F. Garratt, ed. (1995), C. Molloy and P. Carey, ed. (1996), M. Allen, ed. (1997), E. Andrews, ed. (1992 and 1998), H. Vendler (1998), H. Bloom, ed. (2003), F. Collins (2003), and A. B. Crowder and J. D. Hall, ed. (2007); B. O'Donoghue, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney (2009).
HEANEY, Seamus. Irish, b. 1939. Genres: Poetry, Literary criticism and history. Career: Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, visiting professor, 1982-85, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, 1985-96, Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet-in-Residence, 1996-. Secondary sch. teacher, 1962-63; lecturer, St. Joseph's College of Education, Belfast, 1963-66; lecturer in English, Queen's University, Belfast, 1966-72, and Carysfort Training College, Dublin, 1975-81; professor of poetry, Oxford University, 1989-94. Publications: Eleven Poems, 1965; Death of a Naturalist, 1966; (with D. Hammond and M. Longley) Room to Rhyme, 1968; A Lough Neagh Sequence, 1969; Door into the Dark, 1969; Night Drive: Poems, 1970; Boy Driving His Father to Confession, 1970; Land, 1971; (ed. with Alan Brownjohn and Jon Stallworthy) New Poems 1970-71, 1971; Wintering Out, 1972; (ed.) Soundings 2, 1974; North, 1975; The Fire i' the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1975; Bog Poems, 1975; Stations, 1975; Robert Lowell: A Memorial Lecture and an Eulogy, 1978; Field Work, 1979; Selected Poems, 1980; Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1980; An Open Letter, 1983; Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish, 1983; Station Island, 1984; The Haw Lantern, 1987; The Government of the Tongue, 1988; (ed.) The Essential Wordsworth, 1988; The Place of Writing, 1990; New Selected Poems 1966-1987, 1990; Seeing Things, 1991; The Cure at Troy, 1991; Sweeney's Flight, 1992; The Midnight Verdict, 1993; The Spirit Level (poetry), 1996; Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture, 1996; Opened Ground: Poems, 1966-1996, 1998; Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, 1999 (Whitbread Award); L. Janacek of poems by O. Kalda, Diary of One Who Vanished: A Song Cycle, 2000; Electric Light, 2001; Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001, 2002; Burial at Thebes, 2004. Address: Department of English & American Literature & Language, Harvard University, Barker Center, 12 Quincy St, Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.