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Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Caroline Forbes/AP

Seamus Heaney, Nobel-Winning Irish Poet

March 16, 2011
by findingDulcinea Staff
Seamus Heaney is a cultural critic, translator and teacher proclaimed the “most important Irish poet since Yeats” by poet Robert Lowell.

Seamus Heaney’s Early Days

Seamus Heaney was born April 13, 1939, and raised by a large Catholic farming family in Mossbawn, Northern Ireland. Heaney would take inspiration for nearly all of his work from the subjects of rural Ireland, family and the natural world.

While studying for a degree in English Language and Literature at Queen’s University Belfast, Seamus Heaney published his first poems in university magazines Q and Gorgon. He used the pen name “Incertus,” which means “Uncertain.”

Heaney’s Poetry

Heaney published his first book of poems, “Death of a Naturalist,” in 1966. The first poem, “Digging,” examines the tensions between rural life and intellectual pursuit, reflecting Heaney’s pride in the work of his father and grandfather. “Clearances” is a short, affecting tribute to Heaney’s mother, while “Mid-term Break” is a poignant poem about the death of the author’s 4-year-old brother.

Heaney wrote often about the bogs of the Irish countryside, which were the focus of poems such as “Bogland,” and “Tollund Man.” The BBC writes, “Some critics regard these early bog poems as Heaney's chief legacy, eloquently examining the collective historical conscience, going below the more recent Protestant and Catholic hatreds into primeval Celtic behaviour, ‘domains of the cold-blooded,’ where stark evidence of a murderous past has been preserved in the timeless vegetal world of the bogs.”

In the 1970s, as sectarian violence in Northern Ireland increased, Heaney’s poems became more political; his controversial 1975 work “North” specifically addressed Irish politics and history. “Heaney referred to himself as part of the Troubles and set out to comment on the deeply complex historical and cultural life of Northern Ireland,” writes RTE, which hosts a series of interviews with Heaney discussing the Troubles.

Heaney taught at colleges in Ireland and the U.S. as he continued writing, releasing acclaimed works “Field Work” in 1979 and “Station Island” in 1984. He became widely popular in Ireland, the U.S. and Britain, attracting large crowds for his lectures and poetry readings. Heaney, according to Blake Morrison, author of a critical guide to Heaney’s poetry, is “that rare thing, a poet rated highly by critics and academics yet popular with 'the common reader.”

The Rest of the Story

In 1995, Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his Nobel lecture, Heaney discussed the influences and aspirations that guided his work: “[A]s a poet I am in fact straining towards a strain, seeking repose in the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds.”

Clearly, others have found that repose in Heaney’s poetry; on presenting the award, Swedish Academy member M. Osten Sjostrand said: “We all admire your revealing and compelling images and rhythms, we are gladdened by your quest for sacred wells and the sudden eruption of Beauty.”

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