Seamus Heaney Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 171) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Seamus Heaney 1939-

(Full name Seamus Justin Heaney; has also written under the pseudonym Incertus) Irish poet, critic, essayist, nonfiction writer, playwright, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Heaney's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 7, 14, 25, 37, 74, and 91.

Widely considered Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poet, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the Swedish Academy proclaimed his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” In his poetry, Heaney often considers the role and responsibility of the poet in modern society, exploring themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth while addressing political and cultural issues related to Irish history. His verse is characterized by sensuous language, sexual metaphors, and images drawn from nature. Many critics consider him the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats.

Biographical Information

The eldest of nine children, Heaney was raised as a Roman Catholic in Mossbawn, County Derry, a rural community in the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland. When he was eleven years old, Heaney left his family's farm to study at Saint Columb's College in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where he held a scholarship. In 1957 he enrolled at Queen's University in Belfast, where he was introduced to Irish, American, and English literature and became particularly influenced by Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and Robert Frost—poets whose works were significantly informed by their childhood experiences. While in college, Heaney contributed poems to university literary magazines using the pseudonym Incertus. After graduating from Queen's University with a first-class honors degree in English literature and a teaching certificate, Heaney held several 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 of Death of a Naturalist (1966), 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 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. In 1975 he was named head of the English department at Caryfort College in Dublin. Heaney has frequently traveled to the United States and England and, since 1981, has spent part of each year teaching at Harvard University, where he was appointed the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in 1984. Heaney also held the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University from 1989 to 1994. Having already received numerous awards for his poetry and translations, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Major Works

Heaney's earliest poetic works evidence a preoccupation with sensuous memories associated with nature and his rustic childhood. Poems such as “Digging” in Death of a Naturalist evoke the Irish countryside and comment on the care and skill with which his father and ancestors farmed the land. Nature is also a prominent theme in Door into the Dark (1969), in which several poems focus on the work of rural laborers. “Undine,” for instance, 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. Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975) contain a series of “bog poems” inspired by the archaeological excavation of Irish peat bogs that contained the preserved remains of ritually slaughtered human bodies dating from the Iron Age. These poems depict the victims of ancient pagan rites, foreshadowing the violence in contemporary Ireland. Other poems such as “Ocean's Love to Ireland” and “Act of Union” portray the English colonization of Ireland as an act of violent sexual conquest. Field Work (1979) addresses the social unrest of Northern Ireland from a personal perspective as Heaney recounts the loss of friends and relatives to “the troubles.” Other consistent themes in Heaney's oeuvre are self-determination and poetic imagination. Irish history is also an important motif in Heaney's poetry, as evidenced in his sequence of allegorical poems in Station Island (1984). 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. The Haw Lantern (1987) presents a selection of parables about Irish life, including a series of poems entitled “Clearances,” which explores memories of Heaney's relationship with his mother. Other poems in the collection, such as “From the Republic of Conscience” and “From the Canton of Expectation,” meditate on spirituality in the context of a menacing political climate.

Departing from Heaney's earlier emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, Seeing Things (1991) returns to such autobiographical themes as childhood experience and Irish community and ritual. Feelings of loss and yearning are prominent motifs in the collection, as many of the poems evoke celebratory images of Heaney's deceased father who appears frequently throughout the volume. “Squarings”—a sequence of four sections, each containing twelve twelve-line poems—exemplifies Heaney's stylistic and technical experimentation in the collection. The poems in The Spirit Level (1996) examine emotions and ideals that transcend the concrete world, such as “Weighing In,” which offers a meditation on the virtues of self-restraint. The title refers to an Irish term for a carpenter's level, and Heaney's verse reflects the poet's desire to find balance in all spheres of existence. Opened Ground (1998) not only focuses on the physical ground of Ireland, but also on the ground—or foundation—of violence and oppression throughout history. This broad collection, selected from Heaney's entire career, demonstrates how his poems are engendered from images, echoes, and emptiness. Electric Light (2001) draws heavily from reminiscences of Heaney's youth, accompanied by elegies for the people and poets who shaped his life. The collection offers a celebration of how poetry connects Heaney to all of his past and present influences.

Heaney's adaptations and translations have shown a strong focus on ancient history and mythology, while emphasizing the concept of poetry as a liturgical rite. For example, the prose poem Sweeney Astray (1983) has its roots in the medieval Irish tale of King Sweeney, who was transformed from a warrior-king into a bird as the result of a curse. In The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes (1990) and The Midnight Verdict (1993), Heaney pays homage to several ancient authors, including Sophocles and Ovid, who have inspired his works. Heaney's most acclaimed translation has been his reinterpretation of Beowulf (1999), commissioned by the Norton Anthology of Literature. Heaney attempts to open up the Beowulf myth to a wider audience by replacing the original Old English with more accessible and energetic language. However, scholars have debated the merits of Heaney's use of Irish words handed down from the ancient Anglo-Saxons, with some arguing that this damages the text by arbitrarily inserting Irish elements into a story of Germanic and Swedish descent.

Critical Reception

Critical response to Heaney's work has been predominately positive and enthusiastic. Bruce Murphy has described Heaney as “the poet of the English language with the best ear of any now living.” Comparisons between his work and that of other Irish writers—particularly William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett—have proliferated throughout his career. Reviewers have consistently praised how Heaney addresses Ireland's cultural tensions and divisions through the linguistic duality of his poetry, noting his skillful use of both Irish and English literary traditions. Heaney has also been commended for his experimentation with form and style, especially in Station Island and Seeing Things. Although some scholars have faulted Seeing Things for its presentation of overly elusive images and themes, several have praised the volume for its imaginative qualities and its focus on visionary transcendence experienced through ordinary events. Some critics have interpreted the figure of King Sweeney in Sweeney Astray as a representation of the artist torn between imaginative freedom and the constraints of religious, political, and domestic obligations, lauding Heaney's thoughtful examination of the role of the poet in society. Reviewers of Heaney's translation of Beowulf have complimented his ability to remain faithful both to his poetic vision and to the authenticity of the story. William Pratt has likened Heaney's task of translating the work as comparable to the heroic deeds of Beowulf himself, commenting that Heaney “dredged out of the Old English epic something that compares with what he has dredged out of his native Irish bog, something beautiful as well as terrifying.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Bog 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 and lectures) 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; revised as Selected Poems, 1965-1975, 1980

Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (essays) 1980

Sweeney Praises the Trees (poetry) 1981

An Open Letter (poetry) 1983

Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish [translator; from the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne] (prose poem) 1983

Hailstones (poetry) 1984

Station Island (poetry) 1984

From the Republic of Conscience (poetry) 1985

The Haw Lantern (poetry) 1987

The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical Writings (essays and lectures) 1988; revised as The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987, 1988

The Place of Writing (lectures) 1989

The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes [adaptor; from the play Philoctetes by Sophocles] (play) 1990

New Selected Poems: 1966-1987 (poetry) 1990

The Tree Clock (poetry) 1990

Seeing Things (poetry) 1991

*The Midnight Verdict [translator] (poetry) 1993

Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture (lecture) 1995

The Redress of Poetry (lectures) 1995

The Spirit Level (poetry) 1996

Homage to Robert Frost [with Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott] (criticism) 1997

The School Bag [with Ted Hughes] (nonfiction and criticism) 1997

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996 (poetry) 1998

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation [translator] (prose poem) 1999

W. B. Yeats: Poems [editor] (poetry) 2000

Electric Light (poetry) 2001

Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001 (prose) 2002

*Includes translations of poetry from Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Gaelic poem “Cúirt an Mheon-Oíche” by Brian Merriman.

Carol Moldaw (review date winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moldaw, Carol. “A Poetic Conscience.” Partisan Review 62, no. 1 (winter 1995): 144-48.

[In the following review, Moldaw contrasts the subject matter of Heaney's earlier works with that of Seeing Things and Selected Poems, noting a shift from materiality to abstraction.]

Seamus Heaney has long been praised for the textured “thingness” of his poetry. If poets have a ruling element, earth has been his. In 1976, after Heaney's fourth book, North, came out, Robert Fitzgerald noted that Heaney fulfills, as Yeats himself did not, Yeats's dictum in “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” that “All we did, all that we said or sung / must...

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Kieran Quinlan (essay date winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Quinlan, Kieran. “Tracing Seamus Heaney.” World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 63-8.

[In the following essay, Quinlan examines Heaney's background as a Catholic native of Northern Ireland, outlining how changes in his life and philosophies affected his poetry.]

In 1989, when Seamus Heaney accepted his election as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University (a rather odd position, its occupant chosen in a peculiarly odd manner by the “populist” vote of those M.A.'s of the University caring to participate, and then merely required to deliver a modest number of lectures over the course of his tenure), it seemed to many that he had come a very long...

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Michael Allen (essay date July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Allen, Michael. “The Parish and the Dream: Heaney and America, 1969-1987.” Southern Review 31, no. 3 (July 1995): 726-38.

[In the following essay, Allen traces the effect of American literature and culture on Heaney's poetry.]

“Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.” So wrote Larkin, who had left Ireland for England, “home,” in 1955. The implied aesthetic is akin to (and roughly contemporaneous with) Kavanagh's assumption that creative potential has its tap-root in the “parish” of one's deepest allegiance. But despite Kavanagh's importance for Seamus Heaney's art, such local attachments were no longer a crucial spur for Heaney's generation...

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Richard Tillinghast (essay date December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tillinghast, Richard. “Seamus Heaney's ‘Middle Voice.’” New Criterion 14, no. 4 (December 1995): 77-80.

[In the following essay, Tillinghast assesses the political and artistic implications of the poems in Station Island and North.]

Some years ago when Seamus Heaney was rumored once again to have missed a close vote for the Nobel Prize in literature, Charlie Haughey, Ireland's taoiseach (prime minister), was quoted as having remarked: “We wuz robbed!” As Haughey's humorous use of sports-talk and the first-person plural pronoun suggests, Heaney's Nobel on some level belongs to Ireland as a whole. And now, with the cease-fire in Northern...

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William Pratt (essay date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pratt, William. “The Great Irish Elk: Seamus Heaney's Personal Helicon.” World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 261-66.

[In the following essay, Pratt provides an overview of Heaney's life and career through his 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature.]

When Yeats received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, he was fifty-eight and at the height of his poetic powers, which happily continued undiminished for another sixteen years. Yeats wrote some of his best poems in the last years of his life, the decade and a half that followed the Nobel Prize, and in his Autobiographies he even went so far as to say that “The Bounty of Sweden” made him feel...

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Suzanne Keen (essay date 17 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Keen, Suzanne. “Catching the Heart Off Guard: The Generous Vision of Seamus Heaney.” Commonweal 123, no. 10 (17 May 1996): 10-14.

[In the following essay, Keen applauds the tone and style of Heaney's poetics, highlighting its links to the oral traditions of poetry.]

Seamus Heaney in the college cafeteria line at Harvard: The woman serving holds her scoop aloft. “Pasta or potatoes?” she asks. “Surely, you're joking,” says Heaney, and pokes his plate under the sneeze-guard for the potatoes.

In “Digging,” the best-known poem of his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), Heaney declares his distance from men like his...

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William Pratt (review date summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of The Redress of Poetry, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 70, no. 3 (summer 1996): 698.

[In the following review, Pratt criticizes Heaney's overemphasis on politics in The Redress of Poetry.]

The lectures Seamus Heaney gave while occupying the Chair of Poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994 are magisterial, perhaps even to a fault, since he ranges all the way from Herbert and Marlowe to Merriman and MacDiarmid, from John Clare to Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop. If his purpose is to show his wide reading in the English, Scottish, Welsh, and American poetic traditions, to “redress” the imbalance of his...

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Sudeep Sen (review date autumn 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sen, Sudeep. Review of The Spirit Level, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 963.

[In the following review, Sen assesses the humanist impulses that inform The Spirit Level.]

Seamus Heaney's collection The Spirit Level is his first book of poems to appear following his 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature (see WLT 70:2, pp. 253-66) as well as being the first book of verse in five years after Seeing Things (see WLT 67:1, p. 182). As an aside, it may be interesting to note that his new book was in fact written (and was with the publishers) well before he received the prize itself.


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Seamus Deane (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Deane, Seamus. “Powers of Earth and Visions of Air.” In Seamus Heaney: The Shaping Spirit, edited by Catharine Malloy and Phyllis Carey, pp. 27-33. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Deane connects the political aspects of Heaney's poetry with definitions of Ireland as both cultural and geographic entities.]

Since his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), Seamus Heaney has been much concerned with deaths of various kinds. His life as a writer has almost exactly coincided with the most recent period of crisis in Northern Ireland, and the degeneration of that rancid statelet over the past twenty years has provided...

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Vernon Shetley (review date fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shetley, Vernon. “The State of Poetry.” Partisan Review 64, no. 4 (fall 1997): 674-76.

[In the following excerpt, Shetley enthuses about Heaney's “sensitive” perspective on contemporary poetics in The Redress of Poetry.]

In his criticism, T. S. Eliot once asserted, a poet “is always trying to defend the kind of poetry he is writing, or to formulate the kind that he wants to write.” Far from deploring this lack of disinterestedness, Eliot felt that the critical writings of poets “owe a great deal of their interest” to this implicit self-reference, and no doubt many readers are led to Seamus Heaney's prose out of a desire to learn more about the...

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Robert Ellis Hosmer, Jr. (review date 20 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hosmer, Jr., Robert Ellis. “Poetry Roundup.” America 177, no. 20 (20 December 1997): 23-9.

[In the following excerpt, Hosmer assesses the style and theme of The Spirit Level.]

Most of Heaney's poetry is eminently accessible. His latest collection, The Spirit Level, is no exception. Open the book at random, say to “A Brigid's Girdle” or “The Gravel Walks,” and you're immediately drawn in effortlessly to worlds both new and familiar. The language is clear as fresh rainwater and clean as crisply laundered linen, the structure polished, the moment lived through, without seam or crack visible.

Heaney's verse is also richly...

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Lavinia Greenlaw (review date 18 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Greenlaw, Lavinia. “Seeing and Believing.” New Statesman 127, no. 4403 (18 September 1998): 54.

[In the following review, Greenlaw praises the poetry of Opened Ground, summarizing Heaney's achievements from Death of a Naturalist to the present.]

Opened Ground, as Seamus Heaney says in a prefacing note, is neither a selected poems nor a collected. Twice the size of his New Selected Poems: 1966-1987, it includes subsequent work, some uncollected pieces, dramatic excerpts and his Nobel address, an illuminating essay that reflects on “a journey into the wideness of the world … into the wideness of language.” It is worth these...

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William Pratt (review date summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of Opened Ground, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 534.

[In the following review, Pratt highlights the influence of Ireland and Irish culture in the poems of Opened Ground.]

Ireland is a country of only about four million people, but in this century it has produced four Nobel Prize winners in literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney. To average one world-famous writer for every million people is a record that makes a small nation like Ireland seem singularly blessed. Some might say its literary blessing comes at the price of a political curse, since the island has long been one of the world's...

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John F. Desmond (review date 31 July 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Desmond, John F. “Measures of a Poet.” America 181, no. 3 (31 July 1999): 24-5.

[In the following review, Desmond outlines Heaney's career through the poems in Opened Ground.]

In his 1995 Nobel Prize address, “Crediting Poetry,” Seamus Heaney defined lyric poetry as the creating of an order of reality that is both “true to the impact of external reality and … sensitive to the inner laws of the poet's being.” Heaney's definition is self-revealing in that it expresses the basic tensions in his own poetry, his struggle to balance the grim actualities of history against the deeply felt impulses toward lyric delight.


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Tom Shippey (review date 1 October 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shippey, Tom. “Beowulf for the Big-Voiced Scullions.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5035 (1 October 1999): 9-10.

[In the following review, Shippey objects to Heaney's use of Irish words derived from Anglo-Saxon, but unfamiliar to most English speakers, in his translation of Beowulf.]

In the 1997 Beowulf Handbook edited by Robert Bjork and John Niles, Marijane Osborn lists some twenty full or partial English translations of Beowulf, and that is by no means a complete list. Some have been produced by distinguished scholars (J. R. Clark Hall and C. L. Wrenn, E. T. Donaldson, Constance Hieatt), some by rated poets (Edwin Morgan, Burton...

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Nicholas Howe (review date 28 February 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Howe, Nicholas. “Scullionspeak.” New Republic 222, no. 9 (28 February 2000): 32-7.

[In the following review, Howe singles out the humanity and energy of the narrative speeches in Heaney's translation of Beowulf, but concedes that Heaney's use of Ulster idiom is inappropriate since he does not fully re-invent the tale in terms of Anglo-Irish relations.]


For all that it seems to begin English literature, Beowulf is a relative newcomer to the canon. First edited by a Danish scholar in 1815, the year of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and Jane Austen's Emma, the poem as a whole was not translated into Modern...

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Colin Campbell (review date 13 April 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Campbell, Colin. “This Old Dragon Still Breathes Fire.” Christian Science Monitor 92, no. 99 (13 April 2000): 15-16.

[In the following review, Campbell praises Heaney for making Beowulf accessible to twenty-first-century students, using his verses as a bridge between the original text and modern English.]

Speaking from the 6th century across 1,400 years of tempestuous history, what does Beowulf, the high-minded king of the Geats, have to teach us as we strive to outmaster the Grendels and dragons of our own place and time?

But first, another question that springs from my admiration for the Beowulf saga as a work of art: How...

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John Boly (essay date fall 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Boly, John. “Following Seamus Heaney's ‘Follower’: Toward a Performative Criticism.” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 3 (fall 2000): 269-84.

[In the following essay, Boly applies speech act theory to construct multiple modes of meaning and layers of reality for the main persona in Heaney's poem “Follower.”]

Readers of Seamus Heaney's poetry may remember the scene in “Follower” when the father, hard at work with spring ploughing, interrupts his task to reach down, pick up his little boy, and set him on his shoulders. It is an intimate detail made poignant by the speaker's point of view; now an adult, he recollects a moment in childhood shared...

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Bruce Murphy (review date December 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Murphy, Bruce. “Seamus Heaney's Beowulf.Poetry 177 (December 2000): 211-16.

[In the following review, Murphy evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Heaney's translation of Beowulf.]

The Anglo-Saxon scholar Jess Bessinger used to refer to the poem we call Beowulf as the libretto of a lost musical composition. He wanted to draw attention to the fact that the Anglo-Saxon scop, in whom the roles of singer and poet were not yet divided, probably recited this alliterative and mesmerizing poem while accompanying himself on a harp. It is, therefore, an event when the poet of the English language with the best ear of any now living tackles...

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William Pratt (review date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 119-20.

[In the following review, Pratt champions Heaney's fresh approach to the language of Beowulf.]

The oldest epic in English comes to us anew, like a voice out of the cave of our ancestors. It greets us in the original Anglo-Saxon with Hwaet, usually translated as “Lo!” or “Behold!” but liberally transformed by Seamus Heaney into “So,” which he says he heard when he was a boy on a farm in Ulster, when his family and their friends wanted to start a conversation. “So. We Spear-Danes in days gone by,” his translation...

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Jonathan Bolton (essay date spring 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bolton, Jonathan. “‘Customary Rhythms’: Seamus Heaney and the Rite of Poetry.” Papers on Language and Literature 37, no. 2 (spring 2001): 205-22.

[In the following essay, Bolton analyzes the means and ends of Heaney's poetics, as exemplified by the structure and thematic concerns of what Bolton identifies as Heaney's “station poems.”]

Ceremony's a name for the rich horn
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

—W. B. Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”

Near the conclusion of his Nobel Prize address, Crediting Poetry, Seamus Heaney speaks of two kinds of “adequacy” ascribable to poetry: “documentary...

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Adam Newey (review date 15 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Newey, Adam. “A Scratchy Woollen Jumper That Doesn't Quite Fit.” New Statesman 130, no. 4533 (15 April 2001): 53-4.

[In the following review, Newey offers a negative assessment of Electric Light, noting that “the compressed textures of the language tak[es] primacy over just about everything else.”]

All those grant-givers, Arts Council grandees, intellectual-wannabe celebs and assorted boosters who, every so often (usually around Poetry Day), crawl out of whatever piece of bureaucratic woodwork they normally inhabit to proclaim that poetry in Britain has never been more vibrant, diverse and popular should remember two things: that Britain's...

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Paul Mariani (review date 23-30 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mariani, Paul. “The Mother Tongue.” America 184, no. 14 (23-30 April 2001): 25-6.

[In the following review, Mariani celebrates the influence of both famous and non-famous authors on the poems in Electric Light.]

Because Seamus Heaney and I are of an age, and because he has been my secret talisman and guide now for over 30 years, he an Irish Catholic from Derry, I a mongrel Catholic from New York, every book he has published since his first, Death of a Naturalist, has been an event for me. The question I keep asking myself is how he has done it and continues to do it. Each new book offers new surprises, and these take time to digest and absorb....

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Gerald Mangan (review date 4 May 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mangan, Gerald. “Like Peat-Smoke Mulling.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5118 (4 May 2001): 24.

[In the following review, Mangan praises Heaney's impeccable pairing of words to things and his ability to elevate poetry to the level of myth or religion in Electric Light.]

Seamus Heaney has mapped out his own territory so clearly and thoroughly, over the past thirty-odd years, that we are liable to fall into the comforting illusion of knowing him from every angle, as if he were already a sort of walking monument. He paces the same ground habitually, with all the sharp-eyed fondness of a crofter inspecting a fertile inheritance; and he is constantly enriched...

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Lee Oser (review date winter 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Oser, Lee. Review of Electric Light, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 110-11.

[In the following review, Oser offers a positive assessment of Electric Light.]

Like all of Seamus Heaney's work, Electric Light owns up to a modernist inheritance. Anyone who argues that modernism is merely an extension of romantic poetry will not understand where Heaney starts or where he might lead us. It is not merely the case that Heaney adopts the form and diction of the High Modernists—Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Auden (as well as Robert Lowell, their immediate heir)—but that he partakes of their problems, most specifically...

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John Taylor (review date February 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, John. Review of Electric Light, by Seamus Heaney. Poetry 179, no. 5 (February 2002): 296-98.

[In the following review, Taylor appreciates Heaney's examination of the past in Electric Light, but laments the poet's apparent emotional distance from his subjects.]

Although Seamus Heaney includes fine lines celebrating landscape in Electric Light, this is not his most impressive collection. Several bookish poems enfeeble the overall impact of a volume comprising, even more than descriptive nature poetry, some engaging, thought-provoking reminiscence. This irregularity is a pity. The Irish poet's particular way of looking back merits...

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Michael Glover (review date 6 April 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Glover, Michael. “A Force for Good.” Spectator 288, no. 9061 (6 April 2002): 32.

[In the following review, Glover offers a positive assessment of Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, noting that Heaney's poetry and criticism “has helped to keep the craft of poetry on the right, tight track.”]

Another year, another Heaney, ho-hum. I counted up 20-odd titles on the shelf just now. And this time it's not exactly a new book either. This hefty doorstop [Finders Keepers: Selected Prose] takes in material from three earlier collections of his prose published by Faber over the last three decades: Preoccupations, The Government of the...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cho, Christina. Review of Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, by Seamus Heaney. New York Times Book Review (6 October 2002): section 7, p. 33.

Cho compliments Heaney's devotion to language as evidenced in the material collected in Finders Keepers.

Hall, Jason. “Heaney's ‘Requiem for the Croppies.’” Explicator 61, no. 1 (fall 2002): 56-60.

Hall offers a critical assessment of Heaney's early sonnet “Requiem for the Croppies.”

Heaney, Seamus. “From Beowulf.American Poetry Review 29, no. 1 (January-February 2000): 21-5.


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