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How The Irish Times reviewed ‘an impressive young Ulster poet’ named Seamus Heaney in 1966

Michael Longley’s review of Death of a Naturalist was not entirely uncritical

Seamus Heaney's first major volume of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, was published by Faber & Faber in 1966. On May 24th that year, his fellow poet Michael Longley reviewed the collection, which included what are now some of his best known poems, such as Digging and Mid-Term Break.

“This is the first volume of poems by an impressive young Ulster poet,” he writes. “Seamus Heaney’s subject matter derives mainly from his memories of his childhood on a farm in County Derry. A first reading reveals great density and richness which embody precise observations of the people and the landscape of that early experience.

“But, if one of his main qualities is descriptive power, Heaney’s poems are much more than merely descriptive. The considerable imaginative efforts he has put into the meaningful arrangement of facts and observations which seem often so uncompromising, makes his local description the focus and illumination of a much broader human context.”

Longley is not entirely uncritical of his fellow Northern poet. While praising the construction of the title poem Death of a Naturalist, Longley writes that Heaney’s attempt to repeat the process in Blackberry Picking was “much less effective”.

But his review also hints at the greatness that would bring Heaney the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. “It is not a question of the poet having made a certain area of experience his own – he has made it everybody’s. In other words, his childhood landscape has acquired the validity of myth.”

The Irish Times was founded in March 1859 but the tradition of reviewing new books and major works of literature became a feature of newspapers only in the 20th century. As Terence Brown observes in his history of the newspaper: "Until the 1880s and 1890s there was little sense that Ireland possessed a literature of its own... This began to change, however, as what became known as the Irish Literary Revival began to make its impact on cultural life." The paper published a review of WB Yeats's first collection in 1889.

In his book, The Irish Times: 150 Years of Influence, Brown credits editor Alec Newman with establishing the weekly books page in the 1930s as “a thing of serious critical account”.

By the time of Heaney’s first collection, book reviews were a staple of newspapers all over the world. Today, The Irish Times carries reviews of new poetry collections once a month, and publishes a new poem every week.

An article to be published on Saturday, May 1st will carry extracts from significant Irish Times literary reviews from years past, from Yeats’s first collection in 1889 to Anne Enright’s first novel in 1995, along with links to the original reviews, which you can read in full in the archive section of irishtimes.com.

Click here to read the full review of Death of a Naturalist.

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