Heaney Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following a cease-fire between the Irish Republican Army and Great Britain, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to an Irishman for the fourth time brought the world’s attention to both the tensions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and those between politics and aesthetics in poetry.

Summary of Event

Although each of his books of poetry earned him critical acclaim and an ever-larger audience of readers, few could have foreseen Seamus Heaney’s growth from a skillful bard of provincial Irish life to a Nobel laureate who deservingly commands the attention of the world. The fourth Irishman—after William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett—to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Heaney is a man whose subtle facility with the art of poetry has led him to make politically important aesthetic judgments. Nobel Prize in Literature;Seamus Heaney[Heaney] [kw]Heaney Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature (Dec. 10, 1995) [kw]Nobel Prize in Literature, Heaney Receives the (Dec. 10, 1995) [kw]Prize in Literature, Heaney Receives the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1995) [kw]Literature, Heaney Receives the Nobel Prize in (Dec. 10, 1995) Nobel Prize in Literature;Seamus Heaney[Heaney] [g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1995: Heaney Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[09390] [g]Sweden;Dec. 10, 1995: Heaney Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[09390] [c]Literature;Dec. 10, 1995: Heaney Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[09390] Heaney, Seamus

Heaney was vacationing in Greece on October 5, 1995, when he and the world learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Citing his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth,” the Swedish Academy, which confers the prize, also noted that Heaney’s writings analyze the violence in Northern Ireland in insightful terms. Although no one who was well acquainted with his accomplishments in poetry objected to the award, some of Heaney’s staunchest friends grumbled that, in hinting at the political significance of awarding the prize to an Irishman in the midst of the ongoing peace process between England and the Irish Republican Army, the Swedish Academy had called attention away from Heaney’s poetic accomplishments. While the Irish prime minister John Bruton Bruton, John praised Heaney as a literary symbol of the peace effort, the Roman Catholic political leader John Hume Hume, John noted that Heaney deserved the recognition for his poetry, not for politics. Derek Walcott, Walcott, Derek the 1992 Nobel laureate in literature, put the close connection between aesthetics and politics into perspective when, in a statement congratulating Heaney for receiving “just recognition,” he called the poet “the guardian spirit of Irish poetry.”

Born a Roman Catholic in predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland (Ulster) in 1939, Heaney left home to begin his advanced studies at age eleven at St. Columb’s College in Londonderry. In 1957 he attended Queen’s University in Belfast, where he studied the works of Ted Hughes and Robert Frost and submitted poems to the university literary magazine using the pen name Incertus. He took a position as a lecturer in English at St. Joseph’s College of Education in Belfast in 1963, and in 1965 he married Marie Devlin and published Eleven Poems. Eleven Poems (Heaney) In 1966 he published his first commercially distributed book of poems, Death of a Naturalist, Death of a Naturalist (Heaney) which, in the next two years, would earn him the E. C. Gregory Award, the Cholmondeley Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

Death of a Naturalist, like his second book of poems, Door into the Dark (1969), Door into the Dark (Heaney) focuses on the provincial life he knew growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland. Its use of autobiographical themes shows the influence of Ted Hughes Hughes, Ted and Robert Frost, Frost, Robert and Heaney’s lyrical use of nature imagery makes the comparison to Frost especially apt. The first poem, “Digging,” in which Heaney remembers his father digging “down and down/ for the good turf,” and which ends with him deciding to dig with “the squat pen” that rests between his thumb and forefinger, introduces the theme of poetry as an excavation of what lies hidden in the earth. Heaney continued to develop this theme throughout his career. Similarly, in “Personal Helicon,” he compares the effort of writing poetry, which he does “to see myself, to set the darkness echoing,” to looking down into a well as a child.

Beginning with “Bogland,” in Door into the Dark, Heaney began to develop an interest in writing about the preserved bodies of people who had been ritually killed during the Iron Age that had been found in Irish peat bogs. Although “Bogland” does not develop this interest in any overtly political way, lines such as “Our unfenced country/ Is bog that keeps crusting” hint at the political directions he would use to develop this theme in later volumes. In “Tollund Man,” “Bog Queen,” and “Punishment,” among other poems from Wintering Out (1972) Wintering Out (Heaney) and North (1975), North (Heaney) he develops his “bog poems” by focusing on the dead people found in the boglands. He sees in these victims of the tribal practices from an earlier age a mirror for the victims of the tribal split between Protestants and Catholics. Perhaps the most remarkable of these is “Punishment,” in which, contemplating a woman who was apparently killed for adultery, he writes:

I almost love you but would have cast, I know, the stones of silence. I am the artful voyeur . . . I who have stood dumb when your betraying sisters cauled in tar, wept by the railings, who would connive in civilized outrage yet understand the exact and tribal, intimate revenge.

Here he makes explicit the comparison that has been growing through the bog poems: These dead bodies from the bogs are like the dead killed by the ongoing war between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants. The bog people now seem to be demanding that Heaney speak out against such violence.

Seamus Heaney in 1993.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Concurrently with this new emphasis on the effects of political division, Heaney left Belfast to resettle in Dublin, in part because of threats he had received as a Catholic living in a Protestant area. Nonetheless, although the political violence tearing up Northern Ireland provided the unifying moment for the insights of North, he remained unconcerned with fostering political jingoism or with indicting one side or the other. His concern was with marking the costs of war, and in North he used not only the bog people but also images from mythology (such as in “Hercules and Antaeus”) to make this vivid.

The increasing political content of Heaney’s poetry, as well as its increasingly conversational tone, made the comparison to Yeats inevitable and increasingly valid. However, whereas Yeats seemed only intermittently to accept W. H. Auden’s claim, in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” that poetry changes nothing, Heaney seemed to proceed from this assumption. Looking at the shape of his career, it would be inaccurate to say that politics moved him to poetry. Rather, the aesthetic realm existed for him as a rich realm through which the world could be understood and through which truth could be found in language. However, the world that had to be understood also included the world of politics. In “Casualty,” from his 1979 book Field Work, Field Work (Heaney) he contemplates the death of a friend who was killed because he violated a curfew to get a drink. “How culpable was he,” the poet asks, “That last night when he broke/ Our tribe’s complicity?” It is as if he is asking why his friend deserved to die. The poem offers no answers, but ends with the poet saying to the rain, “Ask me again,” as if to admit the insolubility of such questions for the poet. Here as elsewhere Heaney uses his own inability to answer such questions as a way of raising them.

As Yeats turned to Irish legends for inspiration early in his career, so Heaney used the medieval Gaelic poem Buile Suibhne as the basis for his freely translated version, Sweeney Astray (1984), which Henry Hart has suggested offers Heaney another mask through which to express dissatisfaction with his own inability to face the Irish problem resolutely. Heaney returned to Sweeney as a character in “Station Island” (in Station Island, 1984) Station Island (Heaney) which imagines a Dantesque journey through hell and purgatory. In it, Heaney encounters figures from the past and from mythology who take him to task for his obeisance to masochistic, life-denying rituals.

Some of Heaney’s most affecting poetry comes in The Haw Lantern (1987), Haw Lantern, The (Heaney) in which he memorializes his deceased mother in a sequence of linked sonnets. In the third of this series, he remembers peeling potatoes with his mother while the rest of his family is away at Mass, an image to which he returns at the end of the poem, after she has died, to tell readers that they were “Never closer the whole rest of our lives.”

Fundamentally, Heaney has an elegiac imagination. Memorializing the dead is the most dominant theme in his poetry. If his courage to face a political landscape that has given him so much to elegize has set him apart, it has not removed any of the power of his elegies.

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If Heaney had been less well known before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the impact of the award certainly would have been more dramatic. As it was, the Nobel Committee chose to recognize one of the most widely appreciated poets working in the English language. Therefore, although the prize had the effect of commanding world attention to the literary shores of Ireland for a few weeks, the subtle effects of an increased attention to the poetry of Heaney—along with greater sales of his work and more invitations for the poet to visit colleges and universities—developed only slowly.

In his Nobel lecture, titled “Crediting Poetry,” delivered a few days before the awards ceremony held on December 10, 1995, Heaney did not hesitate to link his award with the need for peace in Ireland. He told the story of a minibus carrying laborers that was stopped by armed guerrillas who demanded that the Catholics in the group step forward, presumably to be killed. Heaney focused his story on the protective gesture of one worker who, with a squeeze of the hand, assured the only Catholic in the group that he did not have to step forward. The man did anyway and he, rather than his Protestant fellows, was the only person saved from the ensuing slaughter. Poetry, Heaney said, “knows that the massacre will happen again,” but it also memorializes “the squeeze of the hand,” the sympathy between human beings.

Heaney freely embraced the comparison between himself and Yeats that much of the world had already made. Heaney noted that by the end of his life Yeats claimed that Ireland had changed phenomenally, that it was not the “dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland/ The poets have imagined.” Similarly, the Ireland that Heaney inhabits is not the Ireland he was born into, but one that his Irish coworkers have helped to imagine. That Ireland remains a place where roadside slaughters may still happen underscores the need for a poetry that can be hard and retributive but, on the other hand, not so hard that it forgets the importance of trust.

In a time of violence not only in Belfast and Dublin but also, Heaney says, in Israel, Bosnia, and Rwanda, there is a tendency to discredit not only human nature but also the aestheticization of the work of art. Nonetheless, by crediting the inevitability of hope and compassion, poetry can keep alive the spirit that inspires, for example, the downfall of the Iron Curtain in Europe and the beginning of reconciliation between African and Afrikaner in South Africa. Poetry has the power to persuade the vulnerable part of ourselves that tries to gather lasting values that it is right, despite the evidence of wrongness all around.

It is surely coincidental that Heaney received the Nobel Prize as his collection of essays The Redress of Poetry (1995) Redress of Poetry, The (Heaney) was nearing publication, but that work makes at greater length the argument he made expressively in his Nobel lecture. Writing in a time when English literature is often attacked by those who have lived in countries that have known the sharp edge of British bayonets, Heaney chooses not to dismiss British literature monolithically but to praise it selectively. Poetry, he argues, has the power to redress the profound spiritual imbalances of its age, a power lost somewhat when it enters the political realm as a combatant.

By the time Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature, criticism that destabilized the certainties of literature and that looked at the political cost of spiritual ideals had come to define what was considered to be critical sophistication. By giving Heaney a worldwide audience to express a more idealistic view, the Swedish Academy allowed him to broadcast a message of hope and healing to the readers of the world. Nobel Prize in Literature;Seamus Heaney[Heaney]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Michael, ed. Seamus Heaney: New Casebooks. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Collection of essays is designed largely for those who are interested in understanding the place of Heaney’s work as regarded from a variety of late twentieth century critical views.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burris, Sidney. The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990. Attempts to resolve the apparent contradiction between Heaney’s predominant orientation toward nature in his writing and his growing social concerns as a poet. Argues that the tradition of nature writing into which Heaney falls is one of outward concern with pastoral themes but an inward concern with many social and philosophical ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Durkan, Michael J., and Rand Brandes, comps. Seamus Heaney: A Reference Guide. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996. Extensive bibliography gathers together information on numerous secondary works about Heaney.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garratt, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on Seamus Heaney. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995. Collection of essays focuses primarily on Heaney’s place within the sweep of Irish literature. Contributors consider his work from remarkably diverse viewpoints.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hart, Henry. Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992. Extensive, well-informed study of Heaney’s poetry examines Heaney’s development as a poet, focusing not only on his position within Ireland’s literary history but also on how his reactions to it and to Ireland’s political history have shaped his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heaney, Seamus. The Redress of Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. Collection of essays based on lectures Heaney delivered as a professor of poetry at Oxford gives a full airing to his belief in the power of poetry to provide a spiritual balance to hostile social forces. Includes essays on Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, and Christopher Marlowe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Selected Poems: 1966-1987. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991. Probably the best collection of Heaney’s poems to introduce a reader to his work. Includes an extensive selection from Heaney’s most important works of poetry and a brief sampling of prose poems from his 1975 pamphlet, Stations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Brien, Eugene. Seamus Heaney: Searches for Answers. Sterling, Va.: Pluto Press, 2003. Examines the evolution of the themes found in all of Heaney’s writings over the course of his career, including his prose works and translations as well as his poetry. Includes bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tyler, Meg. A Singing Contest: Conventions of Sound in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney. New York: Routledge, 2005. Presents close readings of selected Heaney poems, with an emphasis on structural analysis of diction, meter, and form.

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