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.