Seamus Justin Heaney (HEE-nee) is widely regarded as the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats, and indeed as one of the foremost contemporary poets in the English language. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
He was born in 1939 to a farming family in rural County Derry, Northern Ireland, a background which dominates his early poetry and which continues to inform both his poetry and his critical sensibility. He was schooled in nearby Anahorish and at a boarding school, St. Columb’s College, in Derry. In 1961 he earned his B.A. in English at Queens University, Belfast, and did postgraduate work at Belfast’s St. Joseph’s College of Education, where he also lectured from 1963 to 1966.
Since his undergraduate years, when Heaney began publishing poems and stories in university magazines, his poetic and academic careers have followed parallel courses in honor and achievement. A year after he published the pamphlet 11 Poems in Belfast, his first full collection, Death of a Naturalist, appeared to general critical acclaim, and Heaney began a six-year term as lecturer at Queen’s University in Belfast. He was guest lecturer in English literature at the University of California at Berkeley for 1971-1972, and by the time his fifth volume, Field Work, was published in 1979, he had been appointed poet-in-residence at Harvard University. In 1989 he was elected to the post of professor of poetry at Oxford University. He is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters.
Heaney’s early poetry relies on his rural Irish upbringing and the tension between familial tradition and intellectual independence, between the competing demands of the local and the cosmopolitan. As the titles of his books suggest, the dominant sources of his poetic language are landscape and the figures of an archaic rural Irish culture. Death of a Naturalist offers visions of the poet’s farm upbringing, with its rich sensuality and awakenings to the processes of seasonal change and folk ritual, but also with its attendant lessons in labor, hardship, and mortality. Door into the Dark and Wintering Out further explore these tensions while delving deeper into the religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland. These poems deal in large part with specific historical sites and Gaelic place names, Heaney often tracing imaginative etymologies that connect the sounds of words to the things and locales they describe (thereby following in the tradition of medieval Irish dinseanchas, or place-name lore, which does exactly the same thing). In 1975, with the publication of North, Heaney addressed Northern Ireland’s troubles directly. The volume drew widespread attention, especially for two sequences of poems. One of these, “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” dramatizes the despair, violence, and guilt of intractable sectarian war; the other, a series of what have come to be called the “bog poems,” places such conflict metaphorically within the context of northern European mythologies of human sacrifice and retribution, Heaney likening the prehistoric corpses recovered from Scandinavian bogs to the victims (sometimes similarly discovered in Irish boglands) of Protestant-Catholic strife in Northern Ireland.
Since North, Heaney’s work has broadened in scope while retaining its local affinities. Field Work and Station Island both include ambitious long poems and sequences that probe the poet’s historical and literary influences. In The Haw Lantern and Seeing Things, Heaney seems less burdened by history and more open to the visionary aspects of experience, more willing “to credit marvels,” as he says in one poem. Constant in his poetry are the themes of individual responsibility, artistic commitment, and the vulnerability of faith, love, and hope in the face of moral ambiguity, violence, and death.
In addition to over a dozen volumes of original verse and collections of selected poems, Heaney has published Sweeney Astray, a verse translation of a medieval Irish saga chronicling the fortunes of an Ulster king who, spellbound, must wander the countryside under the delusion that he is a bird. In 1990 he published The Cure at Troy, a verse play based on Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Concerned as ever with the role of the individual amid political violence, Heaney frames the questions of clan loyalty and civic duty with the story of Odysseus’s plan to bring the outcast Philoctetes back to Troy, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of the Greeks’ victory there. Heaney’s translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf was acclaimed for both the insight of his commentary and the poetry of his translation, which captures not only the meaning of the lines but its artistic impact as well. It was awarded the Whitbread Award for poetry and for book of the year in 1999.
Heaney’s volumes of selected prose reveal his talents as critic of his own poetry and show him to be an insightful and generous assessor of modern poetry in general, whether English, American, Gaelic, or European.