Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 91)
Seamus Heaney Nobel Prize in Literature
(Full name Seamus Justin Heaney) Born in 1939, Heaney is an Irish poet, critic, essayist, translator, and editor.
For further information on Heaney's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 5, 7, 14, 25, 37, and 74.
Widely considered Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poet, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for what the Swedish Academy proclaimed his "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past." In his works, Heaney often considers the role and responsibility a poet should play in society, exploring themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth and addressing political and cultural issues related to Irish history. His poetry is characterized by sensuous language, sexual metaphors, and nature imagery. Many critics agree with Robert Lowell's assessment of him as "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats."
The eldest of nine children, Heaney was raised a Roman Catholic in Mossbawn, County Derry, a rural community in Northern Ireland. He once described himself as one of a group of Catholics in Northern Ireland who "emerged from a hidden, a buried life and entered the realm of education." At age eleven, Heaney left his family's farm to study at Saint Columb's College in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where he had received a scholarship. In 1957 he attended Queen's University in Belfast, where he was introduced to Irish, American, and English literature and was particularly influenced by such poets as Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and Robert Frost, whose poetry was significantly informed by their childhood experiences. While in college, Heaney contributed poems to university literary magazines under the pseudonym Incertus. After graduating from Queen's University with a first-class honors degree in English language and literature and a teaching certificate, he held positions as a secondary school teacher and later returned to Queen's University as a lecturer. During this time he also established himself as a prominent literary figure with the publication in 1966 of Death of a Naturalist, his first major volume of poetry. As a Catholic living in Belfast when fighting erupted between Protestants and Catholics in 1969, Heaney took a personal interest in Ireland's social and political unrest, and he began to address the causes and effects of violence in his poetry. In 1972 Heaney moved from Belfast to a cottage outside Dublin and began writing full time. He returned to teaching in 1975 as head of the English department at Caryfort College in Dublin. Heaney has traveled frequently to the United States to give poetry readings and, from 1989 to 1994, he served as a professor of poetry at Oxford and was appointed Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University.
Heaney's earliest works evince sensuous memories associated with nature and with his childhood on his family's farm. In such poems as "Digging," from Death of a Naturalist, Heaney evokes the Irish countryside and comments on the care and skill with which his father and ancestors farmed the land. Nature is also a prominent theme in his next volume, Door into the Dark (1969) in which several poems focus on the work of rural laborers. Critics have praised the poem "Undine," for example, in which Heaney describes the process of agricultural irrigation in the context of myth and sexuality. Much of Heaney's poetry addresses the history of social unrest in Northern Ireland and considers the relevance of poetry in the face of violence and political upheaval. Included in his collections Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975), for example, are a series of "bog poems" that were inspired by the archaeological excavation of Irish peat bogs containing preserved human bodies that had been ritually slaughtered during the Iron Age. Heaney depicts the victims of such ancient pagan rites as symbolic of the bloodshed caused by contemporary violence in Ireland. In such poems as "Ocean's Love to Ireland" and "Act of Union," Heaney portrays the English colonization of Ireland as an act of violent sexual conquest. Some critics believe that Heaney's most effective poetry emphasizes personal themes of self-determination and poetic imagination. While many of the poems in Field Work (1979)—including such elegies as "The Strand at Lough Beg," "A Post-Card from North Antrim," and "Casualty"—continue to address the unrest in Northern Ireland, they incorporate a personal tone as Heaney depicts the loss of friends and relatives to the violence. Irish history and myth are frequently incorporated in Heaney's works, including his prose poem Sweeney Astray (1984), which is based on the medieval Irish tale of King Sweeney, who was transformed from a warrior-king into a bird as the result of a curse. Some critics have interpreted the figure of King Sweeney as a representation of the artist torn between imaginative freedom and the constraints of religious, political, and domestic obligations, reflecting Heaney's concern with the role of the poet in society. Irish history is also an important motif in a sequence of allegorical poems entitled "Station Island," included in his 1984 collection of the same title. Patterned after Dante's Commedia (c. 1307-c. 1321; Divine Comedy) the sequence portrays a three-day spiritual pilgrimage undertaken by Irish Catholics to Station Island. While on the island, the narrator encounters the souls of dead acquaintances and Irish literary figures, who inspire him to reflect on his life and art. Critics have also praised the privately emotional tone of The Haw Lantern (1987), a collection that includes parables of Irish life and a series of poems entitled "Clearances" in which Heaney explores memories of his relationship with his mother. In such poems as "From the Republic of Conscience" and "From the Canton of Expectation," he meditates on spirituality in the context of a menacing political climate. Seeing Things (1991) also diverges from Heaney's previous emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, returning to the autobiographical themes of childhood experience and Irish community ritual. Feelings of loss and yearning are prominent motifs in the collection, as many poems evoke celebratory images of Heaney's deceased father, who appears frequently throughout the volume. Critics have cited "Squarings," a sequence comprising four sections each containing twelve twelve-line poems, as exemplary of Heaney's stylistic and technical virtuosity. Although some commentators have faulted Seeing Things for its presentation of elusive images and themes that eschew critical interpretation, many have praised the volume for its imaginative qualities and its focus on visionary transcendence experienced through ordinary life events.
Critical response to Heaney's work has been predominately positive and enthusiastic. Comparisons between his work and that of other Irish writers—William Butler Yeats in particular—but also James Joyce and Samuel Beckett have proliferated. Harold Bloom called Heaney's poem "The Harvest Bow," which praises marriage, "a perfect lyric." And John Gross has stated that Heaney "has all the primary gifts of a poet, and they are gifts put at the service of a constant meditation on primary themes, on nature and history and moral choice."
Eleven Poems (poetry) 1965
Death of a Naturalist (poetry) 1966
Room to Rhyme [with Dairo Hammond and Michael Longley] (poetry) 1968
Door into the Dark (poetry) 1969
A Lough Neagh Sequence (poetry) 1969
Boy Driving His Father to Confession (poetry) 1970
Night Drive (poetry) 1970
Land (poetry) 1971
Servant Boy (poetry) 1971
Wintering Out (poetry) 1972
Boy Poems (poetry) 1975
Fire i' the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (criticism) 1975
North (poetry) 1975
Stations (poetry) 1975
In Their Element: A Selection of Poems [with Derek Mahon] (poetry) 1977
After Summer (poetry) 1978
The Making of a Music: Reflections on the Poetry of Wordsworth and Yeats (criticism) 1978
Robert Lowell: A Memorial Address and Elegy (nonfiction) 1978
Field Work (poetry) 1979
Hedge School: Sonnets from Glanmore (poetry) 1979
Ugolino (poetry) 1979
Poems: 1965–1975 (poetry) 1980; also published as Selected Poems 1965–1975, 1980
Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 (essays) 1980
Sweeney Praises the Trees (poetry) 1981
An Open Letter (poetry) 1983
Hailstones (poetry) 1984
Station Island (poetry) 1984
Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish [translator...
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Mary Kinzie (essay date Fall 1988)
SOURCE: "Deeper than Declared: On Seamus Heaney," in Salmagundi, No. 80, Fall, 1988, pp. 22-57.
[Kinzie is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she analyzes the imagery and syntax of Heaney's poetry, focusing on the epic poem, "Station Island."]
"Was there a 'misalliance,'" asks Seamus Heaney of Robert Lowell, "between the gift and the work it was harnessed to do?" [see Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978]. To ask the question is to suggest an affirmative reply: The vivid occasion in Lowell was ever straining toward meditation, the verbal breakdowns toward a state of Horatian health (and, one could say, vice versa). Heaney's sensitivity to this "misalliance" is revealing, since he, too, the best known poet to come out of Ireland since Yeats, hankers after a species of court dress and bardic intonation, for which almost everything in his unconscious music automatically disqualifies him. So, too, do Heaney's authentic gifts as a chronicler of the rough, marshy landscapes and family farms of Ulster ill prepare him to write the large-scale politico-religious work. Yet the misalliance is not without its hard-won triumphs.
"Station Island" is a curious poetic sequence, poignant in parts, powerful in others, but disjointed and bottled up, as if the poet could not commit himself to its deeper...
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William Grimes (essay date 6 October 1995)
SOURCE: "Irish Poet Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature," in The New York Times, October 6, 1995, pp. B1, B18.
[In the following article, Grimes summarizes Heaney's life and career.]
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In conferring the prize, the Swedish Academy praised Mr. Heaney "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."
It also praised Mr. Heaney, a Roman Catholic, for analyzing the violence in Northern Ireland without recourse to conventional terms.
The poet (whose name is pronounced SHA Y-muss HEE-nee) will receive the award on Dec. 10 at a ceremony in Stockholm, along with the Nobel winners in physics, chemistry, economics and medicine, who will be announced next week. This year the prize is worth more than $1 million, the highest it has ever been.
The poet Derek Walcott, who won the Nobel Prize in 1992, issued a statement through Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Mr. Heaney's American publishers: "As the guardian spirit of Irish poetry, Seamus Heaney has, like his predecessor Yeats, received his just recognition."
Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet teaching at Princeton University, said, "This is a great day for Irish poetry and for poetry throughout the world."...
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Seamus Heaney with The Economist (interview date 22 June 1991)
SOURCE: A conversation in The Economist, Vol. 319, June 22, 1991, pp. 98-102.
[In the following interview, Heaney discusses his philosophy of language and the influence his father and his home in Ireland have had on his poetry.]
Seamus Heaney is one of the best known and most widely read of modern poets. His latest collection of poems, Seeing Things, has been both praised and damned: the Spectator has called it "a glass precipice without toehold". In conversation recently, he explained himself to The Economist.
[The Economist]: You were raised a Catholic in County Derry, one of nine children, and your father was a cattle dealer. Were words revered in your household?
[Heaney]: Not in any conscious way at all, no. There was no self-consciousness about the use of language. But there was an unself-conscious relish of excellence in it. I wouldn't say this was particular to the family. It was common to a kind of rural subculture—remarks made were reported. It wasn't the felicity of adjectives that was relished, more the aptness and succinctness and usually slightly elegant cruelty of the remarks.
Your father, who died five years ago, is evoked very vividly in this new collection—and yet you seem to be circling his memory somewhat...
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Review Of Heaney's Most Recent Work
John Bayley (review date 20 October 1995)
SOURCE: "Professing Poetry," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4829, October 20, 1995, pp. 9-10.
[In the following review of The Redress of Poetry, Bayley maintains that though Heaney's criticism is sound and fair, it offers no new startling insights.]
Seamus Heaney's slim book of offerings as Oxford Professor of Poetry gives the impression of being adjusted with courtly discretion to an audience who expect the familiar rather than the new. His most interesting essays are an introduction on the The Redress of Poetry, and its follow-up on Hero and Leander in an Irish context. Later pieces on MacDiarmid and Dylan Thomas, Brian Merriman and John Clare, are sound but conventional, as if Heaney as a poet can only be saying the proper things about other poets, as he does in passing about contemporaries like Holub, Brodsky and the Europeans. The poet as diplomat is an honourable and unusual role (and Heaney's success in it has been suitably and deservedly recognized, along with his achievement in poetry, by the Nobel Committee); but the critic exercising the same kind of function runs the risk of giving pleasure without surprise or illumination.
And yet the essays are rich in good things, one of the best being Heaney's discussion of Marlowe's erotic verse, in which he points out that "the reader is...
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Burris, Sidney. The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1990, 165 p.
Analyzes Heaney's work in relation to the tradition of pastoral poetry, a form outwardly concerned with nature but encompassing many other philosophical and social concerns. Burris calls Heaney "a deeply literary poet, one whose consolations often lie in the invigorating strains of the poetic tradition itself."
Guenther, Charles. "Strong, Singular Voice Thrives Amid Turmoil." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (5 April 1992): 5C
Positive review of Heaney's Seeing Things.
―――――――. "Irish Poet Who Chronicled 2 Cultures Wins Nobel Prize." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (6 October 1995): 3A.
Report on Heaney's winning the Nobel Prize.
Tapscott, Stephen. "Poetry and Trouble: Seamus Heaney's Irish Purgatorio." Southwest Review 71, No. 4 (Autumn 1986): 519-35.
Discusses the relation of Heaney's work to that of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, focusing on their contrasting views of Ireland.
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