Seamus Heaney Biography

Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Seamus Justin Heaney was born into a Roman Catholic farming family in rural Country Derry, Northern Ireland (Ulster), the predominantly Protestant and industrial province of the United Kingdom on the island of Ireland. Much of his boyhood was spent on a farm, one border of which was formed by a stream that also divided Ulster from Eire, the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland. As a schoolboy, he won scholarships, first at the age of eleven to St. Colomb’s College, a Catholic preparatory school, and then to Queen’s University, Belfast, from which he graduated in 1961 with a first class honors degree in English. There he joined a group of young poets working under the direction of creative writers on the faculty.

He began his professional career as a secondary school English teacher, after which he went into teacher education, eventually joining the English faculty of Queen’s in 1966. In 1965, he married Marie Devlin; they would have two sons and a daughter. When civil dissension broke out in Ulster in 1969, eventually leading to martial law, Heaney, as a Catholic-reared poet, became increasingly uncomfortable. In 1972, he relocated to a manor in the Eire countryside to write full time, although he also became a faculty member of a college in Dublin. Beginning in 1979, he adopted the practice of accepting academic appointments at various American universities and spending the rest of the year in Dublin. In 1986, he was appointed Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University, and in 1989, he became professor of poetry at Oxford University. To accommodate both positions, he split his time between a home in Dublin and one in Boston. In August, 2006, he suffered a stroke but has recovered.

Seamus Heaney Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111225050-Heaney.jpgSeamus Heaney Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Seamus Heaney (HEE-nee), the eldest of nine children, was born on his Catholic parents’ farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland, on April 13, 1939. On his father’s side of the family were cattle dealers; on his mother’s were mill workers. Heaney would break with both family traditions and embrace a different line of work as a man of letters, but his rural ancestry and the landscapes of his childhood would provide rich fodder for his poetry. The rural-industrial divide between his parents further revealed itself in their speech patterns. In his childhood, Heaney felt torn between his loquacious mother and his reticent father, a tension sustained in the adult poet’s style of writing. A second tension was manifest in County Derry where Heaney was reared. Differences in practices and beliefs among Catholic and Protestant neighbors were apparent to the boy at an early age, despite generally peaceful relations between the local sects in the 1940’s and 1950’s. This experience, too, would provide material for future poetry.

The young scholar attended local grammar schools near Mossbawn, the name accorded the family farm. When Heaney was twelve, a scholarship replaced farm labor with academic pursuits, and he left home to attend St. Columbs College, a boarding school in Derry. His inaugural poem “Digging,” published in Death of a Naturalist (1966), pays homage to the rural life of his forefathers, but from an early age Heaney’s preference was for the life of the mind. Heaney left Derry for Belfast to attend Queen’s University. Following completion of English studies, he remained in Belfast, enrolling in postgraduate classes at St. Joseph’s College of Education, where he earned a teaching certificate. At this point in his life, Heaney embarked on a teaching career and began writing poems in earnest, dual occupations that would remain constants in his life.

The 1960’s were a time of expansion for Heaney in terms of his career, his family, and his publications. For much of the decade, Heaney taught at colleges and universities in Belfast, including positions as a lecturer at St. Joseph’s College and later Queen’s University. In 1965, he married Marie Devlin, a teacher. Their first son, Michael, was born in 1966, the same year Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first collection of poems, appeared in print. A second son, Christopher, was born in 1968; a year later his second volume of poetry, Door into the Dark (1969) was published. In addition to teaching, Heaney broadcast education programs on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio and television networks. In 1970, with political violence on the rise in Northern Ireland, Heaney accepted a one-year appointment at the University of California at Berkeley, temporarily relocating his family to the United States. Ironically, instead of fleeing political strife, Heaney encountered it in another form. At Berkeley, student protests over both civil rights and the Vietnam War caused him to assume a more political voice in his own poetry.

Following his year in Berkeley, Heaney formally resigned his post at Queen’s University and settled with his family in the south of Ireland. Their exodus to a rural cottage in Glanmore coincided with the publication of another volume, Wintering Out (1972). The influence of political unrest in Northern Ireland and abroad upon his poetry was evident. For the first time the poet’s verse ventured from the private sphere into public concerns, and the collection received a subdued response from the critics, many uncomfortable with Heaney’s new direction. In 1973, daughter Catherine Ann was born. With his family still lodged at Glanmore, for the next two years Heaney traveled between England and the United States to present lectures and readings of his poetry. In 1975, Heaney accepted a position as chair of the English department at Caryfort College in Dublin, and his family again relocated. North (1975), a collection of poems, appeared the same year and received positive appraisal from the critics. The 1970’s ended with the publication of Field Work (1979) and the new decade began with the simultaneous publications of Poems, 1965-1975 (1980; pb. in England as Selected Poems, 1965-1975, 1980) and Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (1980).

The 1980’s found the poet and teacher still dividing his time among Ireland, the United States, and England. In 1982, Heaney took a post at Harvard University in Massachusetts that required his presence on campus only half the year. During his tenure at Harvard, two significant works, Station Island (1984) and The Haw Lantern (1987) were published. Beginning in 1989, Heaney served as professor of poetry at Oxford University in England, another flexible position that allowed him to focus on his writing. In the 1990’s, Heaney produced poems at a prolific rate, also writing prose, plays, and translations. Collections of new poetry included Seeing Things (1991), The Spirit Level (1996), and Audenesque (1998). Heaney’s reputation as a translator was further enhanced upon the publication of Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (1999), a popular and critical achievement. Two volumes of poetry, Electric Light (2001) and District and Circle (2006), also received positive appraisal in the twenty-first century.

Throughout his career, Heaney has been an advocate for his craft, conducting poetry workshops and judging writing competitions. In the mid-1960’s, while teaching at Queen’s University, Heaney assumed responsibility for the poetry workshop founded by British poet Philip Hobsbaum. In the 1970’s, Heaney was an active member of the Republic of Ireland’s Arts Council. Honorary degrees from numerous institutions in Ireland and abroad have been awarded Heaney in recognition of his poetry and service. The Irish Academy of Artists and Writers and the American Academy of Arts and Letters count Heaney among their distinguished members. The French Ministry of Culture dubbed Heaney a Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. In 1995, Heaney’s reputation as one of the most influential poets of the latter half of the twentieth century was confirmed when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Seamus Heaney Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Seamus Heaney follows in the footsteps of William Butler Yeats, the premier Irish poet, with whom Heaney is frequently ranked and compared. Heaney was born the same year Yeats died, 1939, and some critics view this happenstance as a symbolic passing of the poetic torch in Ireland. As a modern-day Yeats, Heaney still wrestles with questions that plagued his compatriot a century earlier. Does poetry matter in a violence-ridden world? What responsibility does the poet share for the despair that ensnares so many people in his or her country? Heaney avoids definite answers to these questions; instead he chronicles personal events and experiences in poems that comprise a microcosm of Irish life in the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

Seamus Heaney Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Seamus Justin Heaney (HEE-nee) is widely regarded as the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats, and indeed as one of the foremost contemporary poets in the English language. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He was born in 1939 to a farming family in rural County Derry, Northern Ireland, a background which dominates his early poetry and which continues to inform both his poetry and his critical sensibility. He was schooled in nearby Anahorish and at a boarding school, St. Columb’s College, in Derry. In 1961 he earned his B.A. in English at Queens University, Belfast, and did postgraduate work at Belfast’s St. Joseph’s College of Education, where he also lectured from 1963 to 1966.

Since his undergraduate years, when Heaney began publishing poems and stories in university magazines, his poetic and academic careers have followed parallel courses in honor and achievement. A year after he published the pamphlet 11 Poems in Belfast, his first full collection, Death of a Naturalist, appeared to general critical acclaim, and Heaney began a six-year term as lecturer at Queen’s University in Belfast. He was guest lecturer in English literature at the University of California at Berkeley for 1971-1972, and by the time his fifth volume, Field Work, was published in 1979, he had been appointed poet-in-residence at Harvard University. In 1989 he was elected to the post of professor of poetry at Oxford University. He is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters.

Heaney’s early poetry relies on his rural Irish upbringing and the tension between familial tradition and intellectual independence, between the competing demands of the local and the cosmopolitan. As the titles of his books suggest, the dominant sources of his poetic language are landscape and the figures of an archaic rural Irish culture. Death of a Naturalist offers visions of the poet’s farm upbringing, with its rich sensuality and awakenings to the processes of seasonal change and folk ritual, but also with its attendant lessons in labor, hardship, and mortality. Door into the Dark and Wintering Out further explore these tensions while delving deeper into the religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland. These poems deal in large part with specific historical sites and Gaelic place names, Heaney often tracing imaginative etymologies that connect the sounds of words to the things and locales they describe (thereby following in the tradition of medieval Irish dinseanchas, or place-name lore, which does exactly the same thing). In 1975, with the publication of North, Heaney addressed Northern Ireland’s troubles directly. The volume drew widespread attention, especially for two sequences of poems. One of these, “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” dramatizes the despair, violence, and guilt of intractable sectarian war; the other, a series of what have come to be called the “bog poems,” places such conflict metaphorically within the context of northern European mythologies of human sacrifice and retribution, Heaney likening the prehistoric corpses recovered from Scandinavian bogs to the victims (sometimes similarly discovered in Irish boglands) of Protestant-Catholic strife in Northern Ireland.

Since North, Heaney’s work has broadened in scope while retaining its local affinities. Field Work and Station Island both include ambitious long poems and sequences that probe the poet’s historical and literary influences. In The Haw Lantern and Seeing Things, Heaney seems less burdened by history and more open to the visionary aspects of experience, more willing “to credit marvels,” as he says in one poem. Constant in his poetry are the themes of individual responsibility, artistic commitment, and the vulnerability of faith, love, and hope in the face of moral ambiguity, violence, and death.

In addition to over a dozen volumes of original verse and collections of selected poems, Heaney has published Sweeney Astray, a verse translation of a medieval Irish saga chronicling the fortunes of an Ulster king who, spellbound, must wander the countryside under the delusion that he is a bird. In 1990 he published The Cure at Troy, a verse play based on Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Concerned as ever with the role of the individual amid political violence, Heaney frames the questions of clan loyalty and civic duty with the story of Odysseus’s plan to bring the outcast Philoctetes back to Troy, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of the Greeks’ victory there. Heaney’s translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf was acclaimed for both the insight of his commentary and the poetry of his translation, which captures not only the meaning of the lines but its artistic impact as well. It was awarded the Whitbread Award for poetry and for book of the year in 1999.

Heaney’s volumes of selected prose reveal his talents as critic of his own poetry and show him to be an insightful and generous assessor of modern poetry in general, whether English, American, Gaelic, or European.

Seamus Heaney Biography (Poetry for Students)

Heaney is generally regarded as one of Ireland's preeminent poets of the late twentieth century. His verse frequently centers on the role...

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Seamus Heaney Biography (Poetry for Students)

Seamus Heaney was born in Mossbawn, in County Derry, in Northern Ireland on April 13, 1939, the same year that Irish poet William Butler...

(The entire section is 462 words.)