BORN: 1939, County Derry, Northern Ireland
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
Death of a Naturalist: (1966)
The Haw Lantern (1987)
Beowulf: A New Translation (1999)
District and Circle (2006)
Seamus Heaney. Heaney, Seamus, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.
From the beginning, critical as well as popular acclaim has greeted each volume of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. In 1966 his first full-length book appeared. Few would have predicted the impact such poetry would have. It is, after all, a poetry about rural subjects and traditional in structure—a poetry that appears to be a deliberate step back into a premodernist world and that rejects most contemporary poetic fashions.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in Northern Ireland. Heaney was born April 13, 1939, in a rural area near Ulster, Northern Ireland. His childhood shaped much of his poetry, including the first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), for which he won immediate success. In most of these poems, Heaney describes a young man’s response to beautiful and threatening aspects of nature. In ‘‘Digging,’’ the poem that opens this volume, he evokes the rural landscape where he was raised and comments on the care and skill with which his father and ancestors farmed the land. Heaney announces that as a poet he will metaphorically ‘‘dig’’ with his pen. In fact, many of the poems in his volume Door into the Dark (1969) search for hidden meaning.
Seamus Heaney was born the oldest of Margaret and Patrick Heaney’s nine children and lived in Mossbawn, the place of the family farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland, about thirty miles northwest of Belfast. This landscape offered a definite sense of belonging and tradition and lifestyle that became part of the local rhythm.
Old and New Conflicts. The landscape also offered reminders of ancient conflicts and losses, some reaching back in history to the threshold of myth. Old tensions also extended in the other direction, right into the present. Although his family was part of the Catholic majority in the local area living in relative harmony with the Protestants, at an early age Heaney was conscious of living in what he has called the ‘‘split culture of Ulster.’’ Between the villages of Castledown and Toome, he was ‘‘symbolically placed between the marks of English influence and the lure of the native experience, between ‘the demesne’ [representing English and Unionist power] and the [native] ‘bog’.... The demesne was walled, wooded, beyond our ken.’’
In the decade before Heaney was born, the people of Ireland were embroiled in a devastating civil war over the country’s fate as either a dominion of Great Britain or as an independent nation, and the conflict remained far from resolved. According to a treaty signed in 1921, Northern Ireland was established as an administrative region of Great Britain separate from Ireland, and maintained its own government. Some of its citizens—primarily Catholics known as Nationalists—believed that Northern
Ireland should be reunited with the Republic of Ireland to form an independent nation free of British control. Other citizens of Northern Ireland—primarily Protestants known as Unionists—believed that Northern Ireland should remain a part of Great Britain. This led to a decades-long series of violent clashes between the two groups known as The Troubles. Heaney grew up in the region at the heart of these conflicts, which grew more violent as the years passed.
Heaney attended St. Columb’s College in Londonderry and then Queen’s University in Belfast; all the while, He carried with him the impressions of his childhood world that would become such an important part of the substance of Death of a Naturalist. He studied at Queen’s until 1961 when he received a first-class honors degree in English language and literature. The following year, he took a postgraduate course of study leading to a teacher’s certificate at St. Joseph’s College of Education in Belfast. These development years provided an essential prelude to the writing of his poems.
Teaching. While he was teaching at St. Thomas’s Secondary School in Ballymurphy, Belfast, from 1962-1963, Heaney collected some of the first poems that were published in Death of a Naturalist. From 1963 through 1966 he was a lecturer in English at St. Joseph’s College. It was during these years when he was associated with the Hobsbaum group that he became firmly established in the literary world. Three of his poems published in the New Statesman in December 1964 came to the attention of Faber and Faber, who eventually became his chief publisher. Heaney also obtained at position at Queen’s University where he had once attended. In 1965 his Eleven Poems, a pamphlet, was published by Festival Publications, Belfast, and in August of the same year he was married to Marie Devlin. Death of a Naturalist, which appeared in May 1966, brought Heaney the E. C. Gregory Award. In July of that year, his son Michael was born.
After the publication of Door into the Dark in 1969, Heaney’s poetic views quickly came under the heavy pressure of political events and violence in Northern Ireland. Heaney left the political turmoil in Northern Ireland to teach at University of California, Berkeley, in 1970, only to find that Berkeley was experiencing its own turmoil over the Vietnam War at that time.
Writing in Wicklow. The source of his writing remained in Ireland. While in Berkeley, he began writing a series of twenty-one prose paragraphs that drew on his childhood. These would be published in pamphlet form in Belfast with the title Stations (1975). Soon after the family’s return from California, Heaney resigned his position at Queen’s University and moved his growing family south to Glanmore, County Wicklow, in the Irish Republic. During these years, as he attempted to earn his living as a writer, he gave several poetry readings in the United States and England, wrote essays, and edited two poetry anthologies: Soundings: An Annual Anthology of New Irish Poetry (1972) and Soundings II (1974).
In 1975, Heaney assumed a teaching position at Caryfort College, a teacher-training institution in Dublin, where he became head of the Department of English. In the following year, after four years in Glanmore, he and his family moved to Dublin, acquiring a house along the bay about halfway between the center of the city and Dun Laoghaire. Heaney kept up his transatlantic ties, frequently giving readings of his poems in America. The connection with America became stronger after 1981, when he resigned his position at Caryfort College and, in February 1982, began a five-year arrangement to teach each spring semester at Harvard, where he had already taught in the spring semester of 1979. The arrangement was now permanent, with Heaney acquiring the title Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Another tie with America was Robert Lowell, with whom the Heaneys became close during the last few years of Lowell’s life.
A Major Poet Following the well-received Field Work, Heaney published Selected Poems 1965-1975 and Preoccupations: Selected Prose, both in 1980. Preoccupations offers candid and engaging accounts of his poetic origins and development; the critical essays on other poets are also revealing of his own interests. Another of his preoccupations has been the medieval Irish work Buile Suibhne, a story of a mad northern king transformed into a kind of bird-man. Heaney followed this with a translation of Beowulfin 1999 and further collections of both prose and poetry in the new century.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Heaney's famous contemporaries include:
Frank McCourt (1931-): Irish-American author of the award-winning 1996 memoir Angela's Ashes (1996).
Peter O'Toole (1932-): Academy Award-winning Irish actor famed for such films as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Stunt Man (1980).
Ted Kooser (1939-): The Poet Laureate of the United States from 2004-2006 and winner of a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Gerry Adams (1948-): President of Sinn Fein, an Irish Republican political organization.
Shane McGowan (1957-): Lead singer and songwriter for the Irish band The Pogues.
Works in Literary Context
Depictions of Northern Ireland. In 1995, Heaney became the fourth Irish writer and second Irish poet to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The first was William Butler Yeats whose influence can clearly be seen in Heaney’s work. Part of Heaney’s popularity, however, stems from his unique subject matter—modern Northern Ireland, its farms and cities beset with civil strife, its natural culture and language overrun by English rule. The landscape he was born into offered a definite sense of place and tradition. Critics have seen this in both the North and Wintering Out collections.
American Modernism. In 1970, Heaney and his family moved to America. Heaney became guest lecturer at the University of California Berkeley, where we was exposed to the poetry of Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Robert Bly, and, perhaps most importantly, William Carlos Williams. This exposure helped loosen his own verse in Wintering Out so that it ceased being ‘‘as tightly strung across its metrical shape.’’
Ancient Traditions and Myths. Heaney’s preoccupation with ancient traditions and myths—and not just those of Ireland—are evident in many of his works. His Bog Poems recall both the myths of ancient Celtic peoples and the history of those who invaded the region such as the Norse. One of Heaney’s most successful projects was a modern translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, considered one of the greatest mythical tales of Europe. Heaney has also translated a series of laments from sixteenth-century Poland, and has written two plays that are updates of ancient Greek works by the classic dramatist Sophocles.
Works in Critical Context
A native of Northern Ireland who divides his time between a home in Dublin and a teaching position at Harvard University, Heaney has attracted a readership on two continents and has won prestigious literary awards in England, Ireland, and the United States.
Heaney’s ambiguous status as an ‘‘emigre’’ may well have contributed to the rather cool, even sour, reception of North by critics in Belfast. The reception elsewhere, however, was mostly positive, as in Anthony Thwaite’s praise in the Times Literary Supplement of the ‘‘pure and scrupulous tact’’ of the poems, which are ‘‘solid, beautifully wrought.’’ Popular response is measurable by the six thousand copies sold in the first month. The book also won the W. H. Smith Award and the Duff Cooper Prize, which was presented, in accordance with Heaney’s wishes, by Robert Lowell. It was also the Poetry Book Society Choice.
Field Work. Generally, reviewers of Heaney’s fifth major poetry collection, Field Work, treated Heaney as an important literary figure, placing him in the same poetic pantheon as William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and other major poets. Denis Donoghue suggests in the New York Times Book Review that in Field Work ‘‘Heaney is writing more powerfully than ever, more fully in possession of his feeling, more at home in his style.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Heaney's work is often inspired by the landscape of his homeland and the rich history attached to it. Other works deeply rooted in the historical significance of landscape include:
''Nature'' (1836), a collection of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's famous essay details the many practical, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits of the American landscape.
Wuthering Heights (1847), a novel by Emily Bronte. The story of a dark romance in which the bleak moors of northern England feature almost as a character in their own right.
West-Running Brook (1928), a book of poems by Robert Frost. This collection of poetry was created at the height of Frost's illustrious career. Many poems are inspired by the New Hampshire countryside.
Out of Africa (1937), a memoir by Isak Dinesen. This memoir by Danish writer Dinesen covers her life on a farm in Kenya in the first part of the twentieth century.
Responses to Literature
1. What is the connection between Heaney’s poetry and Northern Ireland? Is he nostalgic or bitter about the places of his childhood?
2. As a Catholic farmer in a Protestant country, Heaney grew up in many ways an outsider before moving to County Wicklow in 1972. How does this theme of polar opposites and outsiders appear in Heaney’s work?
3. Many critics note that Heaney’s work is at least superficially easy to understand, but also that many of his poems are also about the making of poetry. Choose one passage that illustrates his approach to writing poetry and write a paper discussing Heaney’s craftsmanship.
4. Heaney won the Whitbread Prize for his translation of Beowulf in the year 2000 over other contenders like the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Write a paper evaluating the judge’s decision. Be sure to research and reference the actual criteria used by the judges.
5. All twentieth-century Irish literature has been colored on some level by Ireland’s relationship with England. Research the political situation in Ireland and discuss how Heaney addresses the situation in his poetry. Be sure to include specific references to the poetry.
Andrews, Elmer. The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: All the Realms of Whisper. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Seamus Heaney. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Burris, Sidney. The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990.
Buttel, Robert. Seamus Heaney. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1975.
Foster, John Wilson. The Achievement of Seamus Heaney. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1995.
Garatt, Robert F., ed. Critical Essays on Seamus Heaney. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall International, 1995.
Morrison, Blake. Seamus Heaney. London: Methuen, 1975.
Vendler, Helen. Seamus Heaney. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Alvarez, A. ‘‘A Fine Way with the Language.’’ New York Review of Books (March 6, 1980).
Carson, Ciaran. ‘‘Escaped from the Massacre?’’ Honest Ulsterman (Winter 1975): vol. 10.
Colby Quarterly (March 1994).
Parini, Jay. ‘‘Seamus Heaney: The Ground Possessed.’’ Southern Review (Winter 1979).
Perloff, Marjorie. ‘‘Seamus Heaney: Peat, Politics and Poetry.’’ Washington Post Book World (January 1981).
Frangsmyr, Tore, ed. Seamus Heaney—Biography. Accessed February 2, 2008, from http:// nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/ 1995/heaney-bio.html.