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Why can the irish author of love poems Seamus Heaney be seen as a great poet

Updated on July 17, 2013

Facts and Figures

  • Born 13.04.1939
  • Irish
  • Nobel Prize in Literature 1995
  • 2 Whitbread Prizes
  • Poet, Writer, Translator
  • Lives in Dublin
  • Active from 1966
  • more than 200 Publications


Seamus Heaney is a prominent poet as he is capable of creating detailed images though his mastery of the English language and his ability to express his thoughts with unprecedented clarity only with the help of words and literary devices. Furthermore, the Irishman can be considered a great poet for his works of emotional splendor and ethnical potency. They present the reader with everyday marvels and images of the living past. His poems are written very emotionally and allow the reader to feel closer to the author by giving insights into his personal thoughts, history and feelings. Although the Nobel Prize recipient focuses on a limited variety of themes, he is able to emotionally touch every reader by opposing violence and brutality, while exalting nature and human behavior. In his poems Requiem for the Croppies, Personal Helicon and Act of Union all of these topics are present and elaborated through the effective use of rhetorical devices, which creates a rich and powerful imagery. This essay will provide evidence for Heaney’s poetical significance.

Seamus Heaney Today


Requiem for the Croppies

Heaney’s poem Requiem for the Croppies, written in 1966 and published in Heaney’s second collection Door into the Dark, is a mass for the dead, which fought against English oppression in 1798, but also refers to the 1916 rebellion. In addition, the cyclic sonnet describes the hardships that the Irish peasant “croppies” had to undergo during the rebellions. The poem both opens and closes with the image of barley. It acts as a support to the rebels and reminds them of their native environment, while at the end “grows up out of the grave” and is a reminder of their struggle. They “moved quick and sudden in (their) own country”, having to hide and flee from English soldiers. Heaney portrays this situation, where the Irish have been robbed of their nation and are in constant terror and hiding. Moreover, even figures of respect are degraded to the level of tramps – “The priest lay behind the ditches with the tramp.” The priest is forced to hide in the mud and ditches to survive the onslaught. “Until, on Vinegar Hill, the fatal conclave”, where the Irish troops of priests, tramps and farmers are massacred. The author gives no specific personality to the foe, but only presents them as ‘infantry’, ‘cavalry’ and ‘cannon’, while in comparison the Croppies are identified by ‘pikes’ and ‘scythes’. The enemy is well equipped and prepared, while the Irish are inexperienced and only fight with their tools they use in their daily work. The well-regarded Heaney utilizes metonymies, in which the tools of the peasant stand for the peasants themselves. These images again show the nature of the rebellion, simple people fighting only for their freedom, only to be brutally massacred. The ‘thousands’ of dead are “buried… without shroud or coffin”. As in life, the English have given no honour to the Irish in death, only the barley completes the cycle of the poem and acts as gravestones to the unknown dead.

Heaney's Biography

The one of many
The one of many

Personal Helicon

Heaney also shines with his poem Personal Helicon, which is part of Death of a Naturalist and celebrates Heaney’s childhood and his poetic development by having been dedicated to Michael Longley, another Irish poet, a source of inspiration for Seamus Heaney. The first stanza portrays his early childhood and his obsession with wells. He “loved the dark drop, the trapped sky”. By utilizing alliterations, Heaney conveys his way of trapping his ideas in the darkness and deepness of the wells, to be able to see them from above and truly understand his own consciousness. The next three stanzas depict the three muses of poetry on Helicon, the mountain in Greek mythology, the home of the nine muses. Through the use of the onomatopoeic half-rhyme “rich crash”, Heaney symbolizes Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. The eventfulness and rich content of epic poetry is present in the first well. The second well personifies the muse of love poetry, Erato, as the reader is lead to visualize a white face. White often symbolizes purity, faith and hope, words often associated with love. The well is “fructified like any aquarium”, it is a source of spawning life, as a result of love. The third well possesses “a clean new music in it” but is also “scaresome”. It represents the muse of elegiac poetry and song, Euterpe. Despite the persistent image of Heaney’s childhood, the last stanza of this emotional and personal poem portrays the adult Heaney having stepped away from the well. He mocks himself as a “big-eyed Narcissus”, again a persona from Greek mythology, related to a fixation with oneself. The adult author now believes that such staring into wells is “beneath all adult dignity”. This sensory poem, unlike the cyclic Requiem for the Croppies, possesses a certain gradient as it follows Heaney’s development as a poet and depicts the reason behind his poetry – “to see (him) myself”. The author writes to understand himself and thus mocks himself as a selfish narcissist.

Act of Union

More evidence for Heaney’s greatness comes from the poem Act of Union, in which the poet represents Ireland as a raped woman. The two-part sonnet-form poem depicts nationalistic views of Irish history and the long conflict between Britain and Ireland. Although sonnets are often associated with love, Heaney utilizes this poetic form to describe a violent and unwished-for sexual union and through the use of powerful sexual metaphors compares the British colonization of Ireland with rape. The author effectively personifies both Britain and Ireland. Ireland is portrayed as a vulnerable woman through phrases such as: “beyond your gradual hills. I caress,” while Britain as the “tall kingdom over your shoulder”, which is “still imperially male”. This mastery of rhetorical devices shows the weakness of Ireland in the face of the unforgiving and powerful Great Britain. Through manipulating the sonnet form, Heaney successfully presents the cause for the union in the first part of the poem – the unrest in Ireland – the “act”. In the second part of the poem the “union” – The rape of Ireland - occurs. However, this rape of Ireland does not unite it with Britain. The result – “his heart beneath your heart is a wardrum Mustering force.” – the child will fight back and rebel again, there will be “no treaty”. Ireland will not succumb under the brute force of Britain and will never forget or forgive for the “big pain…again.” Here Heaney refers to the constant cycles of violence and terror imposed on Ireland. Act of Union possesses both a cyclic nature and a gradient – the brutality of Britain escalates, while history repeats itself.

Selected Poems


To summarize, Seamus Heaney can be seen as a great poet, as he utilizes language that enables the reader to easily and quickly understand the author’s thoughts and worries. Heaney’s “close-up” poetry allows insights into Irish history and his own life, through the frequent use of metaphors, manipulation of poetic form and imagery. Due to the success and popularity of his poetry, Seamus Heaney was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, which supports the idea that the author of countless poems regarding Irish nature and history is indeed an influential and well-regarded poet.

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His poems and most famous translation: Beowolf

An Interview with Heaney


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