Seamus Heaney - Ireland's poet who made good
1939 - 2013
Recognized as one of Ireland's greatest poets, Seamus Heaney, recently passed away and left us with a collection of poetry, prose, translations, plays and lectures that represent the heart and soul of Ireland. Only Heaney could capture the emotions, loves, lives, nature and the world around him of his beloved Ireland. Throughout his life he constantly harbored doubts about his poetry and his ability to write poetry, but in the end, those doubts were conquered and he is considered the best Irish poet since Yeats.
When he recently passed away, Heaney was the best-known poet in the world. And, he achieved the pinnacle of writing success when his body of work was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, " for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past," according to the Nobel Prize committee.
He is also recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th century and is the author of more than twenty volumes of poetry and criticism and has edited several widely used poetry anthologies.
His humble beginnings stayed with him and his poetry throughout his life. He was born and raised in Castledawson, County Derry, in Northern Ireland and born into a Catholic family in a Protestant Northern Island. During his young adult life he knew the "Troubles" well.
He grew up on a farm, his father a farmer and cattle dealer and his mother a homemaker. Seamus was the first of nine children she bore. His mother came from an industrial family that worked at a local linen mill in Northern Ireland. It was these beginnings that factored especially in his early poetry and his realistic writing oft the simple life and nature around him.
From 1972 to his death, Heaney lived in Sandymount, Dublin and he claimed Irish rather than British nationality. He wrote of this in his poem, An Open Letter:
My passport's green
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast the Queen.
But, Heaney did graciously meet Queen Elizabeth II in 2009. Even the most hard-hearted of Irishmen melted at the opportunity to meet HRH the queen.
As a young college student, however, Heaney attended and graduated from Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland and in 2004 the university opened the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry in his honor.
Although Heaney taught at Harvard University (1985-2006) and served as the Oxford Professor of Poetry (1989-1994) in Oxford, England, his poetry was always popular with the common reader. He was a popular poet for his subject matter which is known for its beauty and finely-wrought textures. He is a regional poet who is also a traditionlist as he looked back towards the "pre-modern" worlds of William Wordsworth and John Clare.
At the same time, he writes of modern Northern Ireland with its forms and cities beset with civil strife and its natural culture. The impact of his surroundings and details of his humble upbringing in his work is huge.
He served his community well by preserving it's natural customs and crafts in his poetry and this gave him access to a larger community of writers and poets. He takes his place among the best poets in the world because of this. His descriptions of rural farmers and their tasks makes the reader see, hear, smell and taste this Irish life.
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Heaney's poetry & translations
Heaney wrote more than 20 poetry collections/anthologies during his lifetime about the Irish life and condition of the common man. He drew on his upbringing on the farm and his and their rural life. Many of his poems are about life in Northern Ireland and many were of Ireland as well. His heart and soul were with the Irish and hence his life and home in Dublin for the latter half of his life.
His first two poetry collections were about the rough rural Irish life and many are a description of rural farmers and their tasks and thoughts and feelings of nature around them. His poetry permits the reader to see, hear, smell and taste this Irish rural life. Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969) are the poetry collections that depict this theme of his.
He also used his poetry to reflect on the "Troubles", the violent political struggles that disrupted Northern Ireland during Heaney's young adulthood. The IRA protests, bombings, and terrorism disrupted Northern Ireland for more than half the 20th century, in their protest against the English government and control of Northern Ireland. Heaney wrote many poems about the "Troubles" as they were called. He wove the "Troubles" into a larger historical frame with his poetry.
Many of these poems were elegies for friends who died during these times. Heaney took on the post of public spokeman and as someone the rest of Ireland looked to for comment and guidance during these turbulent times.
On the other hand, he felt the weight of this post on his shoulders, and also defended the right of poets to be private, apolitical, and question the extent to which poetry can influence the course of history. During this time Heaney struggled with trying to find a historical framework with which to put his "Troubles" poetry in.
His "Troubles" poems are bleak, undercutting complexities full of ironies. But, even with that, he still writes and shines as a beacon of hope in a troubled time and land. Wintering Out (1973) and North (1975) are the two collections of poetry of the "Troubles" time.
The first literary translation Heaney wrote was of an Irish lyric poem, Buile Suibhne. It was titled, Sweeney Attray: A Version from the Irish (1984). It is an epic poem that is the story of an ancient king who, cursed by the church, is transformed into a mad bird-man and is forced to wander in the harsh inhospitable countryside. It describes the connections between personal choices, dramas and losses and universal forces that the bird-man encounters.
In his collection, Station Island (1984), he wrote a series of poems called "Sweeney Redivivus" revisiting the ancient king from his translation.
The Haw Lantern (1987) is a collection of poetry about his childhood, farm life, politics and culture in Northern Ireland. As he wrote this poetry he looked at how all this has affected the language and how the language has changed and served as a culture bearer. He included a world of imaginations and offered the wisdom of a man growing older and more mature.
His writings took a new direction in his career with the publication of Selected Poems, 1966-1987 (1990). These poems were less literal and more spiritual in their images and flow. Heaney looked inward at himself and wondered who he had become. Through these poems he explored humanism, politics, and nature.
In Electric Light (2001), Heaney broadened his use of allusion and also used memory, elegy, and the pastoral tradition as an aging man writing. He began to re-experience his childhood and early adulthood perceptions in these poems. He was clearly looking inward to his past and his experiences and how they affected him at the time.
Heaney won the T.S. Elliot Prize, the most prestigious poetry award in the UK, for District and Circle (2006). These are authentic and believable poems of the common man. The poems say something extraordinary, but at the same time, something that an ordinary or common person might say.
He won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, the largest annual prize for literary criticism in the English language, for his collection, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971 - 2001 (2002).
These poems are about Heaney's thirty year struggle with the demon of doubt. He questions: What good is poetry? How can it contribute to society? Is it worth all the dedication and demands? His answer: Poets are finders and keepers and look after life by being discoverers and custodians of the hidden and unlooked for. This was Heaney's inward looking time of life and he pondered the many questions we all have as writers.
Heaney's most famous translation work is that of Beowulf (2002), the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem. He took the freedom of using the modern vernacular English in his translation and this revitalized the poem. This translation work is considered brilliant by critics and writers alike.
Heaney had a strong belief in the power of art and poetry to offer hope in the face of an uncertain future even with all the technological change and economic collapse Ireland has faced. Although, his voice is grounded in tradition, two-thirds of poetry collections sold in the UK are of his poetry and are Heaney titles.
Heaney was able to connect with the Irish common man with his own life and experiences in life through his poetry. And the Irish common man was able to connect back to him. This is what made him so popular in Ireland and throughout the world - the ability to 'see' the common man and his plight in Ireland and the rest of the world. He reminded the Irish of their place in the world and how proud they should be of it.
His popularity in death is as great as it was when he was alive. He once said, "If poetry and the arts do anything," he said, "they can fortify our inner life, your inwardness."
And, really, isn't that why we all write?
Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney
Not the most pleasant of scenes from Heaney's childhood, but it represents the rural Irish land and nature as he remembered it. He runs away in the end, hence the "death" of the naturalist. If he dipped his hand in the bog, he would be caught there forever.
Death Of A Naturalist
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Digging by Seamus Heanehy
Potato farming was his father and grandfather's toil. The realism with which he writes creates an endearing image in our minds as to the hard work of an Irish farmer. But, Heaney will also dig, giving reverence to his father and grandfather, but he will do it a bit differently - he will dig with his pen. And, that is exactly what Heaney did with his poetry writing.
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 dayThan any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottleCorked 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
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.
Seamus Heaney, "Digging" from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.
Source: Death of a Naturalist (1966)
Copyright (c) 2013 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved