Authors: Seamus Heaney

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Irish poet


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.{$I[AN]9810001778}{$I[A]Heaney, Seamus}{$I[geo]IRELAND;Heaney, Seamus}{$I[tim]1939;Heaney, Seamus}

Seamus Heaney

(© Nancy Crampton)

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.

BibliographyAndrews, Elmer, ed. The Poetry of Seamus Heaney. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Intended as an introduction to and overview of Heaney’s work, this book offers not only analyses of the poetry, but summaries of the various critical responses to it. A good guide to further research.Burris, Sidney. The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990. Burris has produced the first full-length study of Heaney’s work, approached from the pastoral perspective, both classical and Romantic. It is a thorough scholarly analysis, providing an illuminating context for reading Heaney’s poetry, but is rather heavy for the general reader. The notes and index are full, but there is no bibliography.Collins, Floyd. Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003. A fine introduction to the poet’s expertise and style.Curtis, Tony, ed. The Art of Seamus Heaney. 4th ed. Brigend, Mid Glamorgan, Wales: Seren Books, 2001. A wide-ranging collection of critical essays on Heaney’s poetry from his earliest work to his most recent. Includes a set of drafts of the poem “North” that show how the work evolved.Deane, Seamus. “Seamus Heaney: The Timorous and the Bold.” In Seamus Heaney, edited by Michael Allen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997. A close personal friend of Heaney here provides a warm, congenial introduction to his poetry, paying particular attention to his relation to the Celtic movement of the twentieth century. Deane tends to fault Heaney, however, for not becoming the voice of the beleaguered Catholics. The book also contains many other essays of interest.McCarthy, Conor. Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008. Heaney’s translations of medieval literature are placed in their historical context in this volume, which studies the translator’s ability to bring a modern voice to classic works.Molino, Michael R. Questioning Tradition, Language, and Myth: The Poetry of Seamus Heaney. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994. An extended study of Heaney’s work in its cultural context, looking at how the poet both uses and revises the Irish poetic tradition.Moloney, Karen Marguerite. Seamus Heaney and the Emblems of Hope. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007. An extensively researched study of Heaney’s poetry and his theme of the Celtic fertility myth of kings marrying goddesses. Informative and easy to read.Morrison, Blake. Seamus Heaney. London: Methuen, 1982. Morrison’s introduction is an indispensable first reference for the study of Heaney’s life and works. He comments on the development of the poetry intelligently, and his account of the background is revealing. The book contains good notes and a solid starting bibliography but has no index.O’Brien, Eugene. Seamus Heaney and the Place of Writing. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2002. Analyzes Heaney’s attitude toward place and home and its relevance to Irish identity.O’Donoghue, Bernard. Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1995. Focuses on linguistic issues in Heaney’s poetry, an especially important topic in his work in particular, but also in Irish poetry in general.Parkinson, Thomas. “Serious Work: The Poetry and Prose of Seamus Heaney.” In Poets, Poems, Movements. Studies in Modern Literature. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1990. This brief essay is worth attention not because of depth or detail but because the insights of a major critic are always illuminating. Parkinson places Heaney clearly among the bewildering variety of contemporary writers.Salmagundi 80 (Fall, 1988). This entire issue of this literary journal is concentrated on Heaney. It includes a bibliography, an interview, an essay by the poet, and studies by Helen Vendler, Mary Kinzie, Donald Davis, Jay Parini, and Barry Goldensohn. The various views presented here combine to create one of the most comprehensive surveys of the poet available.Tobin, Daniel. Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. Tobin offers exceptional insight into the work of Heaney, with an excellent overview and a fresh perspective on the deepest meaning of Heaney’s poetry from 1965 to the present.Vendler, Helen Hennessy. Seamus Heaney. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Whereas other books on Heaney have dwelt chiefly on the biographical, geographical, and political aspects of his writing, this book looks squarely and deeply at Heaney’s poetry as art.
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