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."