Seamus Heaney, an accomplished and admired Irish poet, died Friday. He was 74.
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: August 30, 2013
ARTSBEATSeamus Heaney, the 1995 Nobel laureate in Literature, who was often called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died on Friday in Dublin. He was 74.
Joe Wrinn/Harvard University, via Reuters
In an address, President Michael D. Higgins of Ireland, himself a poet, praised Mr. Heaney’s “contribution to the republics of letters, conscience and humanity.” Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, said that Mr. Heaney’s death had brought “great sorrow to Ireland, to language and to literature.”
A Roman Catholic native of Northern Ireland, Mr. Heaney was renowned for work that powerfully evoked the beauty and blood that together have come to define the modern Irish condition. The author of more than a dozen collections of poetry, as well as critical essays and works for the stage, he repeatedly explored the strife and uncertainties that have afflicted his homeland, while managing simultaneously to steer clear of polemic.
Mr. Heaney (pronounced HEE-nee), who had made his home in Dublin since the 1970s, was known to a wide public for the profuse white hair and stentorian voice that befit his calling. He held lectureships at some of the world’s foremost universities, including Harvard, where, starting in the 1980s, he taught regularly for many years; Oxford; and the University of California, Berkeley.
As the trade magazine Publishers Weekly observed in 1995, Mr. Heaney “has an aura, if not a star power, shared by few contemporary poets, emanating as much from his leonine features and unpompous sense of civic responsibility as from the immediate accessibility of his lines.”
Throughout his work, Mr. Heaney was consumed with morality. In his hands, a peat bog is not merely an emblematic feature of the Irish landscape; it is also a spiritual quagmire, evoking the deep ethical conundrums that have long pervaded the place.
“Yeats, despite being quite well known, despite his public role, actually didn’t have anything like the celebrity or, frankly, the ability to touch the people in the way that Seamus did,” Mr. Muldoon, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the poetry editor at The New Yorker, said in an interview on Friday. “It was almost like he was indistinguishable from the country. He was like a rock star who also happened to be a poet.”
Mr. Heaney was enraptured, as he once put it, by “words as bearers of history and mystery.” His poetry, which had an epiphanic quality, was suffused with references to pre-Christian myth — Celtic, of course, but also that of ancient Greece. His style, linguistically dazzling, was nonetheless lacking in the obscurity that can attend poetic pyrotechnics.
At its best, Mr. Heaney’s work had both a meditative lyricism and an airy velocity. His lines could embody a dark marshy melancholy, but as often as not they also communicated the wild onrushing joy of being alive.
The result — work that was finely wrought yet notably straightforward — made Mr. Heaney one of the most widely read poets in the world.
Reviewing Mr. Heaney’s collection “North” in The New York Review of Books in 1976, the Irish poet Richard Murphy wrote: “His original power, which even the sternest critics bow to with respect, is that he can give you the feeling as you read his poems that you are actually doing what they describe. His words not only mean what they say, they sound like their meaning.”
Mr. Heaney made his reputation with his debut volume, “Death of a Naturalist,” published in 1966. In “Digging,” a poem from the collection, he explored the earthy roots of his art:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Though Mr. Heaney’s poems often have pastoral settings, dewy rural romanticism is notably absent: instead, he depicts country life in all its harsh daily reality. His poem “A Drink of Water” opens this way:
She came every morning to draw water
Like an old bat staggering up the field:
The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter
And slow diminuendo as it filled,
Announced her. I recall
Her grey apron, the pocked white enamel
Of the brimming bucket, and the treble
Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.
Mr. Heaney was deeply self-identified as Irish, and much of his work overtly concerned the Troubles, as the long, violent sectarian conflict in late-20th-century Northern Ireland is known.
Alan: As a practicing Catholic in a world grown supercilious over Catholicism, I am indebted to Seamus for hitting the nail on the head: "I could talk until the cows come home about the minority status of Catholics in the North of Ireland. But that ground has been gone over a lot. I would say that the more important Catholic thing is the actual sense of eternal values and infamous vices which our education or formation gives us. There's a sense of profoundness, a sense that the universe can be ashimmer with something, and Catholicism - even if I don't like sentimentalizing it - was the backdrop to that whole thing. The world I grew up in offered me a sense that I was a citizen of the empyrean - the crystalline elsewhere of the world." Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate