Seamus Heaney Heaney, Seamus - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Seamus Heaney 1939–

(Full name Seamus Justin Heaney) Irish poet, critic, essayist, editor, and translator.

Heaney is widely considered Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poet and has often been called the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats. In his works, Heaney often focuses on the proper roles and responsibilities of a poet in society, exploring themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth as well as addressing political and cultural issues related to Irish history. His poetry is characterized by sensuous language, sexual metaphors, and nature imagery. Soon after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, commentator Helen Vendler praised Heaney "the Irish poet whose pen has been the conscience of his country."

Biographical Information

The eldest of nine children, Heaney was raised a Roman Catholic in Mossbawn, County Derry, a rural community in Protestant Northern Ireland. At age eleven he received a scholarship to Saint Columb's College in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and left his father's farm. At Queen's University in Belfast, he was introduced to Irish, American, and English literature and exposed to artists such as Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanaugh, and Robert Frost. While at university, Heaney contributed several poems to literary magazines under the pen name Incertus. After graduating with honors in 1961, he taught secondary school, later returning to Queen's University as a lecturer. During this time he also established himself as a prominent literary figure with the publication of Death of a Naturalist in 1966, his first volume of poetry. In 1969, when fighting broke out between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast, Heaney began to address the unrest's causes and effects in his poetry. He and his family moved to a cottage outside Dublin in 1972, where he wrote full-time until he accepted a teaching position at Caryfort College in Dublin in 1975. He has also taught at Harvard and Oxford Universities and has frequently traveled to the United States and England to give poetry readings and lectures. Having already won numerous awards for his poetry and translations, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.

Major Works

Heaney's first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), is imbued with the colors of his Derry childhood; these early works evince sensuous memories associated with nature

and with his childhood on his family's farm. Evoking the care with which his father and ancestors farmed the land, Heaney announces in the first poem in the collection, "Digging," that he will figuratively "dig" with his pen. In his next published volume, Door into the Dark (1969), Heaney also incorporates nature and his childhood as prominent themes.

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. In his next collection Wintering Out, 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. North (1975) develops this historical theme further, using myth to widen its universality. 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. Field Work (1979) does not depart from Heaney's outrage at the violence in Northern Ireland but shifts to a more personal tone. The collection encompasses a wide range of subjects: love and marriage, mortality, and the regenerative powers of self-determination and the poetic imagination.

Translating Sweeney Astray (1984) from the Irish tale Buile Suibhne allowed Heaney to work with myth, for he brings to the English-speaking world the warrior-king Sweeney's adventures after a curse has transformed him into a bird. Station Island (1984) is also concerned with Irish history and myth. Patterned after Dante's Divine Comedy in its tripartite structure, the central section describes a threeday pilgrimage taken by Catholics to the Irish Station Island seeking spiritual renewal. There the narrator encounters the souls of his dead ancestors and Irish literary figures who speak to him, stirring from him a meditation on his life and art.

The Haw Lantern (1987) contains both parables of Irish life and poems such as "From the Republic of Conscience" and "From the Canton of Expectation." This volume also includes a series of poems entitled "Clearances," which chronicles his relationship with his mother. In Seeing Things (1991) Heaney diverges from his 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.

Critical Reception

Critics of Heaney's early work were immediately impressed by his freshness of expression and command of detail. He has been praised for his political poems, especially those that depict the violence between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. In these poems, it has been noted that Heaney also addresses Ireland's cultural tensions and divisions through the linguistic duality of his poetry, which draws upon both Irish and English literary traditions. Critical commentary has traced the thematic development of Heaney's work, contending that as his later poems continue to address the unrest in Northern Ireland, they also incorporate a more personal tone as Heaney depicts the loss of friends and relatives to the violence. As his most recent work diverges from his previous emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, Heaney returns to the autobiographical themes of childhood experience and Irish community ritual. Many critics have lauded these poems for their imaginative qualities and their focus on visionary transcendence experienced through ordinary life events.

Heaney has been commended for his experimentation with form and style, in particular in the volumes Seeing Things and Station Island. His efforts to integrate meaning and sound often result in vivid descriptions, witty metaphors, and assonant phrasing. By most critics he is acclaimed as one of the foremost poets of his generation and is very favorably compared to such poets as Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Michael Hartnett, and Ted Hughes.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Death of a Naturalist 1966

Door into the Dark 1969

Wintering Out 1972

North 1975

Field Work 1979

Poems: 1965-1975 1980

Station Island 1984

Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish [translator and adapter] (poetry) 1984

The Haw Lantern 1987

Seeing Things 1991

The Spirit Level 1996

Other Major Works

Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (essays) 1980 The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987 (essays) 1988

The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes (drama) 1990

The Redress of Poetry (lectures) 1995

David Caller (review date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Description as Poetry," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, January, 1967, pp. 140-46.

[In the following excerpt, Galler explores the expository nature of Heaney's poems in Death of a Naturalist.]

Description—the details of what is being observed or performed—is the basis of all writing: epic, narrative, dramatic, or lyric. And this is the case whether the mind works through the eye directly or behind the eye by the various methods of analogy. But prior to this century poetry was not made of the kind of description that permits the reader no leap whatever to a plane of experience related to but more complete than that which is being observed....

(The entire section is 658 words.)

Bruce Bidwell (essay date 1973-1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Soft Grip on the Sick Place: The Bogland Poetry of Seamus Heaney," in The Dublin Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 3, Autumn-Winter, 1973-1974, pp. 86-90.

[In the following essay, Bidwell draws a connection between Heaney's metaphor of the bog and Irish republicanism.]

In the spring of 1781 Lord Moira, a landlord with vast holdings in County Down, was approached by his rather sheepish estate agent with a story which led to the first documented find of what are now referred to as the bog-people. He presented Lord Moira with a plait of hair which had been found on a human skull—a skull belonging to a woman buried in the bog nearly 1800 years before.


(The entire section is 1274 words.)

Robert Buttel (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beginnings," in Seamus Heaney, Bucknell University Press, 1975, pp. 19-35.

[In the following excerpt from the full-length study of Heaney's work, Buttel examines the seminal influences on Heaney's early poetry.]

"A poet begins involved with craft, with aspirations that are chiefly concerned with making," Seamus Heaney has said in a statement about his aims which he wrote two or three years ago to accompany a selection of his poems (Corgi Poets in Focus 2). The poet "needs a way of saying and there is a first language he can learn from the voices of other poets, dead and alive." He could have cited "Turkeys Observed" as an illustration of part of his own...

(The entire section is 4700 words.)

Richard Murphy (review date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry and Terror," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 23, No. 15, September 30, 1976, pp. 38-40.

[In the following laudatory review of North, Murphy discusses the defining characteristics of Heaney's poetry.]

Visitors to Ireland have often remarked that we seem to live in the past. They note our strong attachment to beliefs which were held in the Dark Ages and our inability to end a conflict which goes back to the religious wars of the seventeenth century. Our moist green landscape charms them, where it remains unpolluted by modern industry. They see fields full of cattle, which have been a source of wealth since the mythical wars of Cuchulain and...

(The entire section is 3148 words.)

Robert Pinsky (review date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Field Work, in New Republic, Vol. 181, No. 3389, December 22, 1979, pp. 31-3.

[In the following essay, Pinsky provides a favorable review of Field Work.]

The poems of Seamus Heaney give several kinds of pleasure: first of all, he is a talented writer, with a sense of language and rhythm as clean, sweet, and solid as newworked hardwood. Beyond that, his previous book, North, showed inspiringly that his talent had the limberness and pluck needed to take up some of the burden of history—the tangled, pained history of Ireland. Heaney's success in dealing with the murderous racial enmities of past and present, avoiding all the sins of...

(The entire section is 1624 words.)

Rita Zoutenbier (essay date. 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Matter of Ireland and the Poetry of Seamus Heaney," in Dutch Quarterly Review, Vol. IX, No. 1,1979, pp. 4-23.

[In the following excerpt, Zoutenbier traces the thematic and stylistic development of Heaney's verse.]

Seamus Heaney was born in Country Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1939, the oldest of nine children; and spent the first fourteen years of his life at Mossbawn, near Lough Neagh in County Derry, where his father was a fanner and cattle dealer. From the primary school at Anahorish, he moved on to St Columb's, a Catholic boarding school in Derry, and then to Queen's University, Belfast, where he read English and where, after working in a Belfast...

(The entire section is 5920 words.)

Alan Shapiro (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Crossed Pieties," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1984, pp. 336-48.

[In the following review of Heaney's two volumes of collected poetry and prose, Shapiro relates the stylistic and thematic development of Heaney's poetry to his assertion of personal and national identity.]

There's an old Gaelic poem which goes, "Who ever heard/ Such a sight unsung/ As a severed head/ With a grafted tongue." This image—of a culture severed from the body of its own traditions and forced to speak another language—indicates the profound dilemma facing every Anglo-Irish poet fated to discover and express in English, the oppressor's tongue, his...

(The entire section is 4502 words.)

Helen Vendler (review date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Station Island, in The New Yorker, Vol. LXI, No. 31, September 23, 1985, pp. 108, 111-12, 114-16.

[In the following excerpt, Vendler examines the major themes of Heaney's Station Island.]

Station Island, also known as St. Patrick's Purgatory, is an island in Lough Derg, in northwest Ireland. It has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries; tradition says that St. Patrick once fasted and prayed there. The island gives its name to Seamus Heaney's purgatorial new collection, containing five years' work—Station Island. The book reflects the disquiet of an uprooted life—one of successive dislocations. Heaney's life began in Castledawson,...

(The entire section is 3797 words.)

Seamus Heaney with June Beisch (interview date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Seamus Heaney, in The Literary Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Winter, 1986, pp. 161-69.

[In the following interview, Heaney discusses his writing habits, the origin of Sweeney Astray, and the work of other contemporary poets.]

Seamus Heaney, the poet from Ireland, has just been granted tenure at Harvard. We can all breathe a sigh of relief, now that we now have an important poet in residence (half-time) in Cambridge who is impeccable in his behavior and projects a dignity that students can respect. As a matter of fact, so popular is Heaney with the students that they speak of him with a near-reverence (in spite of the difficulties they have...

(The entire section is 3158 words.)

Henry Hart (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seamus Heaney's Poetry of Meditation: Door into the Dark," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 1-17.

[In the following prize-winning essay, Hart analyzes the opposing, yet interwoven themes of Heaney's poetry, maintaining that the poet finds "precedents in a tradition of Catholic meditation but give to the old forms a new complexity and an attractive, personal finish."]

Images of dark and light appear so frequently in poetic tradition that, when summoned for contemporary use, they run the risk of being immediately obsolescent. Each poet must dust off the old clichés and glaze them with new varnish. For Seamus Heaney,...

(The entire section is 6004 words.)

Helen Yendler (review date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Second Thoughts," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXV, No. 7, April 28, 1988, pp. 41-2.

[In the following favorable review, Vendler explores the defining characteristics of the poems compiled in The Haw Lantern, asserting that the volume is an expression of the natural loss of middle-age.]

Here are thirty-two new poems by Seamus Heaney—the yield since Station Island (1985). Heaney is a poet of abundance who is undergoing in middle age the experience of natural loss. As the earth loses for him the mass and gravity of familiar presences—parents and friends taken by death—desiccation and weightlessness threaten the former fullness of...

(The entire section is 4029 words.)

Seamus Heaney with Randy Brandes (interview date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Seamus Heaney, in Salmagundi, No. 80, Fall, 1988, pp. 4-21.

[In the following interview, Heaney discusses his poetry, especially the poems in The Haw Lantern, as well as American poets that have influenced his work.]

With your recent birthday (your 49th), you are entering what MacNeice called "the middle stretch." Do you feel you are at a pivotal point in your work?
Ever since I published a book, I have felt at a pivotal point. Publication is rather like pushing the boat out; then the boat/book turns into a melting ice floe...

(The entire section is 6391 words.)

Henry Hart (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seamus Heaney's Anxiety of Trust in Field Work," in Chicago Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, 1989, pp. 87-108.

[In the following essay, Hart determines the influence of Robert Lowell on the poems of Field Work, and praises Heaney's willingness to take risks in this volume.]

Most poetic careers advance like waves disturbed by a central event, each new pulse collapsing only after the tensions impelling it have been exhausted. Heaney's career is no exception. His image of the family's drinking water shaken by the train in "Glanmore Sonnets IV" (the "small ripples…vanished into where they seemed to start") brilliantly captures this contrapuntal progress....

(The entire section is 8298 words.)

Sidney Burris (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Heaney and the Pastoral Persuasion," in The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Persuasion, Ohio University Press, 1990, pp. 1-34.

[In the following excerpt, Burris places Heaney's poetry within the context of pastoral tradition.]

Abducted by Hades and spirited away to the underworld, Persephone ate several seeds from a pomegranate, the fruit traditionally associated with marriage and fertility cults. The price of her impudence was her freedom. Ingestion of the fruit sealed the marital alliance, and Demeter, Persephone's mother and one of the oldest, most powerful goddesses of the Greek pantheon, lost her daughter to an infernal son-in-law....

(The entire section is 6188 words.)

Robert Pinsky (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Seeing Things, in The Yale Review, Vol. 80, Nos. 1-2, 1992, pp. 236-54.

[In the following essay, Pinsky provides a favorable review of Heaney's Seeing Things.]

Seamus Heaney's poems have earned a host of literary awards and about as much public celebration as is likely for any poet in our time. A native of Northern Ireland, a man of great personal charm, wit, eloquence in speech, and probity, Heaney has attracted (he attention of journalists in this country and around the world. His work has been embraced by academic critics, taught in schools and universities, and made the object of Ph.D. dissertations.

Nevertheless, he is...

(The entire section is 1434 words.)

J. R. Atfield (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seeing Things in a Jungian Perspective: Archetypal Elements in Seamus Heaney's Recent Poetry," in Agenda, Vol. 33, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter, 1996, pp. 131-43.

[In the following essay, Atfield offers a Jungian interpretation of the poetry found in the volume Seeing Things.]

Seamus Heaney is clearly conversant with Jung's psychology and its relevance to art, specifically literature: in a conversation with Borges [in The Crane Bag, Volume 7, 1983], he referred to the "Jungian archetypes" as "valid explanations of what we experience in the subconscious worlds of dreams and fiction," and more recently in The Government of the Tongue, he used...

(The entire section is 3414 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Buttel, Robert. Seamus Heaney. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 88 p.

Biographical and critical study of Heaney.

Corcoran, Neil. Seamus Heaney. London: Faber and Faber, 1986, 192 p.

Provides a biographical and critical overview. Corcoran includes a select bibliography.

Quinlan, Kieran. 'Tracing Seamus Heaney." World Literature Today 69, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 63-8.

Overviews the poet's life and verse, emphasizing the political nature of both.


(The entire section is 727 words.)