It’s impossible to conceive of a contemporary poet, Irish or otherwise, whose works are more evocative of time and place than Seamus Heaney. He was born, the eldest of nine children, on the family farm of Mossbawn (itself the title of two poems in his fourth collection, North), in the townland of Tamniarn, near Bellaghy, on April 13, 1939. Heaney’s family background, his Catholic upbringing and his study of Irish at school imbued him with a strong sense of being Irish in a state that considered itself British, a paradox that would form a major motif in his work during the 1970s. While at Queen’s University, Belfast, he was further influenced by the literature he discovered in Belfast’s Linen Hall library, especially the works of John Hewitt, the Antrim-born “Poet of the Glens”, and the English “naturalist” poet Ted Hughes, in whose work he found an “association of sounds in print that connected with the world below”. The rural Monaghan setting of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry further echoed his own experience and vision.
Heaney’s first poem, Tractors, was published in the Belfast Evening Telegraph in 1962. His first significant collection, Death of a Naturalist, followed in 1966 and was immediately recognized for its earthiness and command of diverse metrical forms. In the 1960s, while lecturing at Queen’s, Heaney’s career expanded into journalism and television and he became increasingly involved in the civil-rights movement. His response to the Troubles saw him seeking for “images and symbols adequate to our predicament” and he began to see poetry as a mode of resistance. Eventually, though, the violence so disturbed him that he moved with his family to County Wicklow, prompting Ian Paisley’s Protestant Telegraph to bid farewell to “the well-known papist propagandist” on his departure to his “spiritual home in the popish republic”. While his 1970s collections North and Field Work had mixed receptions – some saw the strong influence of Robert Lowell on the former – Heaney found himself turning increasingly to his Irish heritage as a source of inspiration, particularly the long medieval poem Buile Suibhne (The Madness of Sweeney), and published his own Sweeney Astray collection in 1983. The following year’s Station Island drew on his experiences as a participant in St Patrick’s Purgatory.
The hunger strikes of the early 1980s brought a new urgency to Northern politics and a revival of Heaney’s polemicism. Prompted by the staging in Derry in 1980 of Brian Friel’s play Translations, which showed English surveyors travelling through eighteenth-century Ireland anglicizing all the place names, Heaney cofounded the Field Day Theatre Company with Friel, his old friend and fellow academic Séamus Deane, the actor Stephen Rea and others. While the group’s theatrical activities were themselves controversial, it was their publications that engendered the most antipathy. Their pamphlets were criticized as attempts to over-intellectualize the Troubles and the 1991 Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing was decried for its under-representation of work by women writers, though a subsequent volume entirely devoted to them has since been published.
Heaney’s reputation, however, has remained largely unsullied, maintained not merely by the sheer literary strength of his work and its ready accessibility, but by his undoubted charisma and a lack of pomposity. In 1995, his body of work was more widely recognized by the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Heaney’s recent works include: a translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, his dramatic retelling of this tale of monster- and dragon-slaying managing to breathe new life into a work that was long considered too dense and metaphorical for a modern readership; and his collection, District and Circle, which won the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry in 2006.