Obituary: Heaney ‘the most important Irish poet since Yeats’
His books sold and continue to sell in the tens of thousands, while hordes of ‘Heaneyboppers’ flocked to his readings
Seamus Heaney did not confine himself to poetry. A respected critic, he also was a distinguished academic and his translations from Greek, Latin, Italian, Irish and Anglo-Saxon reflect the extent of his learning. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Born: April 13th, 1939;
Died: August 30th, 2013
The Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, who has died aged 74, was described by Robert Lowell as “the most important Irish poet since Yeats”. Widely acclaimed for his many notable achievements, he was undoubtedly the most popular poet writing in English, and the only one assured of a place in the bestseller lists. His books sold, and continue to sell, in the tens of thousands, while hordes of “Heaneyboppers” flocked to his readings. His earliest influences, Robert Frost and Ted Hughes, are reflected throughout his work, but most especially in his first two collections, where he recollected images of his childhood on the family farm in Co Derry. Other poets, especially Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy, as well as Dante, also influenced his work.
On Heaney’s 70th birthday, the poet Paul Muldoon wrote: “If ever the concept ‘generous to a fault’ has had a corporeal manifestation it’s surely in him. Again and again I’ve heard him speak only good of those, including whippersnappers like myself, of whom others would inevitably have taken a dim view.”
The critic Helen Vendler wrote: “Seamus broadened my view of Ireland, north and south – its geography, its history, its labour, its sounds, its euphemisms, its crises of conscience, its bog bodies, its bombs, its weather, its sectarian stand-offs, its twilights.” Poet and critic Robert Pinsky praised Heaney’s “gift for laughter and for friendship, a generosity entirely congruent with the qualities of his great gift and accomplishment in art”.
Heaney did not confine himself to poetry. A respected critic, he was also a distinguished academic and his translations from Greek, Latin, Italian, Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Middle Scots reflect the extent of his learning. As a translator he sought to remain true to the original text, and disliked the modern practice whereby a poem is “smashed and grabbed rather than rendered up”.
As well as translations from Dante in various volumes, and versions from the Polish of Jan Kochanowski, published as Laments (1995), he published Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish (1983). His translation of Beowulf (1999) won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 2000.
The Cure at Troy, based on Sophocles’s Philoctetes, was first performed at the Guildhall, Derry, in 1990, while Burial at Thebes, his version of Sophocles’s Antigone, was premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 2004. His translation of the Scottish poet Robert Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables was published in 2009. Henryson wrote in Middle Scots, prompting Heaney to explore another strand of the northern tradition.
A sometime broadcaster and journalist, in the 1970s Heaney presented the book programme Imprint on RTÉ radio. He recorded several albums for Claddagh records, collaborating with fellow poet John Montague on one and uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn on another. RTÉ in 2009 produced a 15-CD box set of him reading his 11 poetry collections.
He received numerous honorary doctorates, and was a member and saoi of Aosdána, and an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1996, he was made a Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French ministry of culture. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.
When, in March 2009, he was presented with the David Cohen Prize for Literature, the then British poet laureate, Andrew Motion, said Heaney’s poems “crystallised the story of our times in language which has bravely and memorably continued to extend its imaginative reach”.
John Montague described Heaney’s most recent collection, Human Chain (2010), as “more sombre in atmosphere than any since Station Island”. He continued: “What is truly dazzling in Heaney is his descriptive power, his almost hymn to a Conway Stewart fountain pen, or glimpses of his father performing a farmyard task.”
Colm Tóibín welcomed “his best single volume for many years, and one that contains some of the best poems he has written”, while Ruth Padel hailed a “wonderful and humane achievement”.
Human Chain was awarded the Forward poetry prize, The Irish Times Poetry Now Award and the Griffith poetry prize.
In 2011, an honorary doctorate of philosophy was conferred on Heaney by Dublin City University, the highest award the college can confer, and he was awarded the Ulysses Medal, UCD’s highest honour. He also received the inaugural Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award in honour of his contribution to Irish literature.
He was not without his detractors, however. The polemicist Desmond Fennell characterised him as a creature of the Anglo-American literary establishment. And the scholar and critic Antony Easthope wrote: “The consensus for Heaney has endorsed a poetry which is bland, self-important and simply not very original.”
Born in 1939, Seamus Justin Heaney was the eldest of nine children of Patrick Heaney and his wife, Margaret (née McCann), and was brought up on the family farm, Mossbawn, between Toomebridge and Castledawson in Co Derry. In 1954, the family moved to The Wood, outside Bellaghy, a farm bequeathed to Patrick Heaney by his uncle, Hugh Scullion.
Educated at the local Anahorish primary school, he later won scholarships to St Columb’s College, Derry, and Queen’s University Belfast. His brother Christopher was killed in a road accident at the age of four while Heaney was studying at St Columb’s. The poems Mid-Term Break and The Blackbird of Glanmore refer to that death.
After graduating, he taught briefly at St Thomas’s intermediate school in Belfast – where the headmaster, Michael MacLaverty, encouraged his writing – before taking up a post as a lecturer in English at St Joseph’s teacher training college in Belfast in 1963. In 1966, he was appointed lecturer in modern English literature at Queen’s.
There he associated with a writers’ circle, which included poet Michael Longley and novelist Bernard MacLaverty, based around the influential English poet Philip Hobsbaum, then a lecturer at Belfast.
In 1972, he resigned his post at Queen’s University and moved south to live in Glanmore, Co Wicklow; he strongly rejected suggestions that he fled Belfast because of the Troubles. He continued to pursue his academic career and, in the 1970s and early 1980s, lectured at Carysfort College in Dublin. Later he worked at Harvard and, in 1989, was elected for a five-year period as Oxford University professor of poetry.
His early poems were first published in student magazines under the pseudonym Incertus, and later his work appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, The Irish Times and the New Statesman. A chapbook, Eleven Poems, was published in 1965 in association with the Queen’s University festival.
His first major collection, Death of a Naturalist, published by Faber and Faber, followed in 1966. Rooted in childhood experiences, the collection reflects upon death, the recapture of a lost time and the freedom and joy of artistic creativity. It won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.
Door into the Dark (1969) was also well received and became a Poetry Book Society choice. It demonstrated a willingness to go beyond the familiar into the unknown, investing portraits of local people – blacksmiths, thatchers, fishermen and farmers – with mythic qualities. From this auspicious start his career prospered, his reputation grew and he soon came to be regarded as the leading Irish poet of his generation. A third book of poetry, Wintering Out, published in 1972, confirmed his reputation. It deals with exposure and endurance in poems that are grimly circumspect about the civil and sectarian conflict in the North.
“These were very dangerous times,” he said in 2009. “When the Provisional IRA began their campaign, people like myself, with a strong sense that things needed to be redressed, were excited.”
Bloody Sunday in Derry prompted him to write a polemical poem that spoke of “My heart besieged by anger, my mind a gap of danger”, and of justice waiting to sprout “in Derry where the 13 men lay dead”. He insisted this was a protest poem, commissioned for a rally but never actually performed.
Recalling the mid-1970s, when the violence was at its worst, he said: “There was a sense of an utterly wasteful, cancerous stalemate, and that the violence was unproductive. It was villainous, but you were living with it. Only after it stopped did you realise what you had lived with. Day by day, week by week, we lived through this, and didn’t fully take in what was going on.”
He always felt it was impossible for him to take sides, and had no regrets about not speaking out. His nationality, however, was never in doubt. When, in 1981, his work was included in an anthology of contemporary British poetry, he resented being “cornered” and protested in rhyme: “My passport’s green,/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen.”
His reading of PV Glob’s book The Bog People (1969), with its account of Iron Age sacrificial victims such as the Tollund Man discovered in a Danish bog, suggested ways of understanding the horror of the Troubles as part of a timeless continuum.
This understanding found expression in his “Bog Poems” sequence contained in North (1975). This volume confirmed the emergence of a talent on a par with Yeats. Widely regarded as his finest and most original collection, it was, however, the subject of adverse criticism in Northern Ireland, even from some of those he had befriended and championed.
The pressures and intransigencies of the northern conflict surface in Field Work (1979), in which elegies to victims of sectarian violence emphasise the personal over the tribal. Both North and Field Work enhanced his reputation further and spread it far beyond Ireland.
The title poem in Station Island (1984) details a Dantesque pilgrimage to Lough Derg. Some of the poems in The Haw Lantern (1987) reflect an eastern European influence, while others, such as the “Glanmore sonnets”, are deeply rooted in particular places. One critic noted that the poems in Seeing Things (1991) are “aimed squarely at transcendence”. These last three volumes, along with The Spirit Level (1996), chart his development. A comprehensive selection, Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, appeared in 1998, followed by Electric Light in 2001.
The Nobel Prize in Literature is often contentious but no award was more widely welcomed and warmly applauded than that made to Heaney in 1995 (the sour note struck by Eamon Dunphy in the Sunday Independent – “This man deserves real begrudgery” – was one of the few exceptions).
He championed the work of Russian poets Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky, Polish poets Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert and the Czech poet Miroslav Holub, seeing them as poets “under pressure”.
He had a particular affinity with Polish writers. The “mixture of close-knit friendships and commitment to poetry” reminded him of Belfast in the 1960s.
Heaney’s is an extensive, varied and progressive body of work, simultaneously profound, comprehensive and wide-ranging in its concerns and sympathies. But it is also remarkably consistent and unified.
In Digging, one of his earliest and best-known poems, he reflects on his father’s and grandfather’s prowess with a spade (“By God, the old man could handle a spade,/Just like his old man”). Finally, he comes to the recognition that while he cannot emulate the feats of his father and grandfather (who “could cut more turf in a day/Than any other man on Toner’s bog”), he could still, in a sense, follow them and consider himself their heir.
Given that he came from a place where words are weapons and phrases can make history, it is inevitable some of Heaney’s lines have been absorbed into the political idiom: “whatever you say say nothing” is one example and “hope and history rhyme” another.
“In Ireland,” he said, “you cannot divorce the literary from the historical, from the political”. Yet he was less a political poet than a poet whose genius was essentially lyric and private, who saw his poetry as arising out of a “quarrel with himself”.
He was, however, a public poet. Moreover, he was for much of his life the public face of poetry in Ireland and beyond.
He recalled the traditional rhymes of country life he and his fellow pupils would recite and the “scurrilous and sectarian” chants they “used to fling at one another”; he recalled also how the zinc-roofed temporary schoolhouse at Anahorish rang to the “voluptuous swell” of the “music” of Byron’s The Eve of Waterloo.
At secondary school and university, he began to experience “real onsets of pleasure and epiphany” in the work of the canonical poets: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Arnold, Hopkins, Robert Frost and later “the alliterative poetry of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English”.
He enjoyed a long and illustrious university career. In 1984, he was named Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard University, and, as already noted, in 1989 was elected for a five-year period as professor of poetry at Oxford University. Four volumes of critical essays – Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, The Government of the Tongue, The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures and Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001 – established his reputation as a serious critic .
As an undergraduate, Heaney studied English (although he could operate between several languages). He was not, of course, the first or only major poet with a background in literary studies, although writers of an earlier generation would have been more likely to have studied the classics. What distinguished Heaney was his generally positive view of the system and the institutions through which he passed, as student and teacher, and his generosity in acknowledging a debt.
Firmly convinced of the importance of poetry, he was both a poet and a teacher of poetry; much of his time in universities was spent not as a writer in residence but as a classroom teacher. His benign influence on, and generosity to and encouragement of, younger writers has been acknowledged, but his nurturing of generations of readers has been less often remarked. Worthy of mention in this regard is his work as an editor and anthologist, and in particular his co-editing, with Ted Hughes, of the popular anthology The Rattle Bag (1982).
In 1981 he became a director of Field Day Theatre Company, joining Brian Friel and Stephen Rea, along with Seamus Deane, David Hammond, Thomas Kilroy and Tom Paulin.
He warmly welcomed the new dispensation ushered in by the Belfast Agreement and the fact that political violence in Northern Ireland had all but ended.
However, in January 2013, loyalist protests against restrictions on the flying of the union flag over Belfast City Hall led him to describe the situation in Northern Ireland as potentially “very dangerous”.
He told the Times that, at the start of the Troubles in Derry, the nationalist leader Eddie McAteer had said to him that “both sides” were entitled to their “pageantry”. And while loyalists tended to take pageantry “to extremes”, Sinn Féin should not have forced the issue. An “entitlement factor” meant that loyalists had a case, and therefore the restrictions should be lifted.
His circle of friends included artists, academics, broadcasters, musicians, poets, playwrights and politicians. He delivered the funeral eulogies for Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky and RS Thomas. He was quoted by Bill Clinton, befriended by Prince Charles and visited in his Wicklow cottage by the Emperor and Empress of Japan.
In August 2006 he suffered a stroke and was admitted to hospital. He made a complete recovery within six weeks but engagements for 12 months were cancelled. He played a full part in the public celebrations of his 70th in 2009.
In 2011 he donated his personal literary notes to the National Library of Ireland.
‘Wideness of language’
For Seamus Heaney, the “most unexpected and miraculous thing” in his life was the arrival in it of poetry. In his Nobel lecture he spoke of “the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it”. He described his career as a “journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life – turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination”.
He is survived by his wife, Marie (née Devlin), to whom he was married in 1965; their sons, Michael and Christopher, and daughter Catherine.