Seamus Justin Heaney: 13 April 1939 * 30 August 2013

By Vendler, Helen | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Seamus Justin Heaney: 13 April 1939 * 30 August 2013


Vendler, Helen, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


SEAMUS HEANEY, the most famous English-language poet of his era and (as was often said) the greatest Irish poet since W. B. Yeats, was awarded in 1995 the Nobel Prize "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past." His public readings attracted large appreciative audiences not only in Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States but also throughout Europe. Heaney, although best known for his work as a poet, was also a prose writer of vigor and eloquence. He even ventured into the adaptation of Sophoclean tragedy when, in conjunction with the Field Day Theatre, he produced English "versions" (as he preferred to characterize them) of Philoctetes (under the title The Cure at Troy) and Antigone (under the title The Burial at Thebes). Heaney was a notable translator not only of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf but also (in "version" form) of the anonymous Middle-Irish narrative Buile Suibhne (rendered as Sweeney Astray) and the Middle-Scots The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables of Robert Henryson. Scattered in various volumes are translations of excerpts from Virgil, Ovid, and other poets, and at the time of Heaney's death, a limited edition of his translation of Book VI of The Aeneid was in preparation. A book-length interview by Dennis O'Driscoll, published in 2008 as Stepping Stones, is the fullest rendering of Heaney's own view of his life and work.

Heaney, born in Castledawson, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, grew up as the first child of nine born to Patrick Heaney, a cattle-dealer, and his wife Margaret. Patrick's sister Mary shared the house, and Heaney's first memory (revealed in "Mossbawn") was of his Aunt Mary making and baking scones: "And here is love / like a tinsmith's scoop / sunk past its gleam / in the meal-bin." After elementary school in Anahorish, Heaney won a scholarship enabling him to become a boarder at the Catholic St. Columb's School in Derry, a period vividly recalled in the sequence "Alphabets," in which Heaney traces his schooling in English, Latin, and Irish, a process by which the world is widened beyond his rural upbringing. During Heaney's time at St. Columb's, his 4-year-old brother Christopher was killed in a road accident; the tragedy is described in one of Heaney's most famous poems "Mid-Term Break."

It was at Queen's University Belfast that Heaney began to write poems under the pen-name "Incertus": "I went disguised in it . . . tagging it under my efforts like a damp fuse. Uncertain." Heaney leftQueen's in 1964 with a First in English and, after a year at St. Joseph's teacher-training college, was an intermediate school teacher for one year before being appointed to the staffat St. Joseph's. At this time, he met the English critic and poet Philip Hobsbaum, who formed in Dublin (as he had in London previously) a group of young poets who met regularly to read and critique each other's work. Hobsbaum forwarded Heaney's work to London where it was seen by Karl Miller, editor of The New Statesman, who in l964 published three poems, including the well-known poem of vocation "Digging": "Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I'll dig with it." In 1965, Faber published Heaney's first volume of poems, Death of a Naturalist, which was followed by 11 more collections. The most substantial collected edition, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996, was, by the time of Heaney's death in 2013, missing poems from the volumes published in 2001 (Electric Light), 2006 (District and Circle), and 2010 (Human Chain). In 2009, to celebrate Heaney's 70th birthday, Faber released a collection of CDs on which Heaney had recorded all of his published poems to that point, but no Complete Poems was ever issued. A bibliography of Heaney's work by Rand Brandes was published in 2008.

In 1965, Heaney married Marie Devlin, a teacher and writer; three children, Michael, Christopher, and Catherine were born of the marriage. In 1966, Heaney became a lecturer at Queen's University, Belfast, and in 1970, he accepted an offer to be a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, returning to Queen's in 1971. …

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