Armytage Open Lecture


Heaney, Seamus
from Literature Online biography

In sketches of his early life in Ireland Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) depicts the surroundings -- thin walls, crowded rooms and scuttling wildlife -- with the same deft touch as the detailed and sensuous observations in his poetry. Describing the emotionally and physically crowded thatched farm that was his childhood home, he speaks of life being 'more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world [. . .] an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other'. In retrospect he associates the vivid descriptions of his personal landscape in his early work with security and the need to try and establish 'truth' (quotations from 'Crediting Poetry', Nobel Lecture, 7 December 1995). As his career progressed, Heaney would use naturalistic imagery as a vehicle to investigate the irresolvable tensions of his times from a wide spectrum of political, theoretical and ethical perspectives.

Seamus Justin Heaney was born on 13 April 1939, as the first of nine siblings, on the family farm in County Derry in Northern Ireland. Childhood memories of life at Mossbawn Farm permeate his early poetry and recur throughout his work. Among the poems in his second published volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), the title poem explores the pleasure and terror of a frogspawn-hunting expedition; 'Digging' observes his father harvesting potatoes; while 'Churning Day' recounts his mother's exertions making butter. Critics occasionally deprecate these early tributes to familiar and localised subject matter as derivative of early literary influences, including Wordsworth and Ted Hughes (Thomas C. Foster, Seamus Heaney , 1989). Despite the subjective baseline however, the poems preserve a sharp critical distance, maintaining integrity by never sentimentalising the bleak realities of rural existence.

A bright child, at the age of 12 Heaney won a scholarship to St Columb's College, a Roman Catholic grammar school about 45 miles away from home, a distance that required him to board for the remainder of his school career. Before two years had passed however, he was called back to attend the funeral of his younger brother, Christopher, who had died in a road accident, aged three, an incident that is poignantly recalled in 'Mid-Term Break' ( Death of a Naturalist ). At the college Heaney studied Irish (Gaeilge) and Latin, to which Old English (Anglo-Saxon) was added when he progressed, in 1957, to the English Language and Literature degree programme at Queen's University, Belfast. Critical opinion often draws attention to these linguistic elements of Heaney's education, which facilitated his later translation work and clearly influenced his poetic development: 'many of the best known poems in North [. . .] are linguistically tuned to the Anglo-Saxon note in English. His poetic line was much more resolutely stressed and packed during this period' (uncredited, 'Seamus Heaney', Nobel Prize website, 1994).

In his early twenties Heaney became a member of the Belfast Group (1962-72), a poetry and criticism discussion group chaired by Philip Hobsbaum , poet, literary critic and -- at that time -- lecturer at Queen's University. Hobsbaum had a formidable reputation for harsh criticism, but it is claimed that Heaney later praised his ability to integrate the different traditions of the aspiring poets in the group (obituary of Hobsbaum , The Times , 6 June 2005). The Group, which was hosted by the Heaneys in its latter years, discussed other poets' work and invited members to submit their own new work for discussion and constructive criticism. Several of Heaney's early poems had their premieres under these circumstances, in the Hobsbaums' or his own parlour. Some were subsequently submitted to magazines and journals, and Eleven Poems was published by Festival Publications, associated with the celebrations of the Queen's Festival of 1965. Most of these early poems were republished in Death of a Naturalist .

Heaney is often considered to be a 'poet of place' -- and has himself spoken of the importance of location in the early poems (including North , 1975). His references to childhood haunts -- what he has described as 'mythic surroundings: well water and harps, scythes and sickles' (Richard Covington interview, Salon , 13, 29 April 1996) -- can be misleading, however. Critical commentary, especially in relation to Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark (1969), has debated Heaney's contribution to the pastoral tradition, often pointing to parallels with Wordsworth 's Prelude , for example. Wordsworth 's awed sensation of the huge crag over Ullswater supernaturally rearing its head ( The Prelude , Book 1) evokes a similar terror, albeit in less grandiose perspective, at the sensation of lurking evil in a barn:
The dark gulfed like a roof-space. I was chaff
To be pecked up when birds shot through the air-slits.
I lay face-down to shun the fear above.
The two-lugged sacks moved in like great blind rats
('The Barn', Death of a Naturalist ).
Rather than the idealised and artificial countryside of Arcadian pastoral it is sometimes mistaken for, in this rendition random and threatening ambivalence lies just beneath Nature's familiar crust.

Door into the Dark (1969) extends many of the themes of Death of a Naturalist . The celebration of rural life continues in 'The Forge', for example, albeit in a metaphorical treatment of the wider concept of craftsmanship. The perspective of the poem is that of the outsider, distanced from the mystery of creation enacted within. The 'fantail of sparks', the persistent ringing of hammer on anvil as the horseshoe is shaped, and the onomatopoeic hiss as it 'toughens in water', are vivid sensory snapshots framed by the darkness of the forge doorway. Ever concerned with home -- in the sense of Homeland -- Heaney's focus moves inwards in this collection, and he includes dramatic monologues examining perceptions of women in their roles of wife and mother. Discussing the title, Heaney speaks of poetry being a door between dormant consciousness and lived experience, 'looking back to a ramification of the roots and associations and looking forward to a clarification of sense and meaning' ('Feeling into Words', in Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1979 , 1980).

Recurring themes of water and earth in the first part of Wintering Out (1972) lead to notions of tribal adhesion, ritual and rejection -- sometimes termed anthropological preoccupations -- in the later poems. The metaphor of literally unearthing the mythic and historical past, explored often in Heaney's works, found resonance in P.V. Glob's The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved (1965). This is a surprisingly lyrical account of the discovery of the corpses of perfectly-preserved Iron-Age people in Tollund Fen, Central Jutland, in May 1950. Amid descriptions of 'Wild cherry, blackthorn, crab apple and briar' (Glob) are documented the ambiguous ritual bindings, mutilations, vestments and strange peace of the Tollund Man and his bog brethren of two thousand years ago. Thomas Foster notes that this discovery furnished Heaney with the allegory through which to articulate 'neighbourly treachery, vengeance, and destruction in modern Northern Ireland'. The collection's shift from intimate family to wider cultural matters, particularly as revealed in political allusions within 'The Tollund Man', finds fuller expression in North (1975).

Escalating hostilities in Northern Ireland, between the Catholic Civil Rights Association, loyalist Protestants and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, eventually caused a widespread explosion of sectarian violence from the summer of 1969. Heaney deplored the carnage but refused to assume the voice of either side, to the anger of many. He has been criticised for non-commitment and for his allegorising of the 'Troubles', and at times his work has been commandeered and misinterpreted. To his lasting disquiet, for example, 'Requiem for the Croppies' (1969), commemorating the united Irish revolt against the English colonisers in 1798, was seized upon as his endorsement of the IRA's campaign of murder and intimidation (Heaney, Richard Covington interview). North melds visions of land and nation with the imagery of love, punishment and exploitation. Heaney returns to his fascination with Glob's bog people in 'Bog Queen', 'The Grauballe Man', 'Punishment' and 'Strange Fruit'. The latter adopts a distanced tone to reflect upon the severed head of a young girl, presumed to have been ritually sacrificed for the crime of adultery, while the title of the poem also alludes to racist campaigns against black African Americans in the southern United States. 'Punishment' integrates contemporary comment on the political strife in Ireland, in which reflection on the corpse's shorn head, 'like a stubble of black corn', links the fens of Denmark with the fields and bogs of Ireland, while the girl's vulnerability brings to mind the tarred and feathered female victims of Northern Ireland's vigilante mob:
I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings
Heaney does not flinch from underlining the hypocrisy of the sympathetic observer -- perhaps including himself -- who does nothing to prevent the atrocity.

Field Work (1979) continues to assume a mid-way position: in Thomas Foster's terms, the poetry 'failed to engage the public reality because it is so insistently fair-minded, so earnestly trying to understand the other side'. 'After a Killing' can seem to illustrate this opinion as, despite its title and the opening's introduction of 'Two young men with rifles on the hill', it quickly slips into the everyday realities of mackerel bought from the fishing boats, and fresh-dug produce from the garden. The deliberate juxtaposition of extremes highlights a determined and habitual non-engagement, which can also be read as a critique of the 'conspiracy of silence'. More harrowing poems such as the elegy 'The Strand at Lough Beg', engage closely with the horror of arbitrary death in the atrocities, in this case the murder by the IRA of Heaney's cousin, Colum McCartney.

The circumstances of McCartney's death are recounted in the title poem of Station Island (1984), in a combination of third person observation and conversation between the dead man and the narrator (Heaney), 'His brow / was blown open above the eye and blood / had dried on his neck and cheek' ('Station Island', VII). An understated tragedy of unfeasible resistance and equal inevitability of outcome unfolds, the chilling prologue of which is neighbours' insistent hammering at the door in the depths of the night. A poem in twelve parts, 'Station Island' is a penitential sequence influenced by Dante 's Purgatory , T.S. Eliot 's The Waste Land and James Joyce 's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man . The poem has epic proportions, encountering past heroes and eventually meeting Joyce himself in the final stanza, 'the tall man at my side', who urges him to make the language his own, 'fill the element / with signatures on your own frequency, echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements' ('Station Island', XII).

Although 'Alphabets', from The Haw Lantern (1987), is delivered in the third person, it clearly draws on events in Heaney's own life, tracing his childhood development in three phases, from his pre-literate earliest memories, through school time, to mature reflection. In many ways the poem is reminiscent of Joyce 's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , which opens with a nursery rhyme and traces Stephen Dedalus's life and his struggle with the inherited language of the coloniser. The first section depicts the child's first steps towards literacy in English, the middle section deals with a growing familiarity with Latin in the unnamed 'stricter school' (i.e. St Columb's), and in the final section assimilation of his education -- Greek, Latin and English literature -- is evident in his articulation of daily life. Though 'ownership' of the keys to alien cultures creates his identity, ironically, the Latin 'IN HOC SIGNO' [vinces] ('in this sign thou shalt [conquer]') points back to his Catholic upbringing and the Latin liturgy ('Alphabets'). Critics identify a new direction in the The Haw Lantern , perhaps evoked in response to the deaths of Heaney's parents in 1984 and 1986. The collection contains a profoundly intimate and moving sequence of sonnets which form an obituary for his mother, Margaret. Earlier attempts to capture the material world in his poetry, Helen Vendler claims, shifted to preoccupation with the 'realm of consciousness' in an exploration of absence, memories and loss ( Seamus Heaney , 1998).

Seeing Things (1991) continues themes of immateriality and complementary worlds -- 'the practical and the poetic', in Heaney's own terms ('Frontiers of Writing', The Redress of Poetry , 1995). Inspired by Virgil 's and Dante 's literary journeys into the underworld, but nuanced by the intensity of personal emotion, he encounters the living presence of his dead father. Perceptions, memories and the imagination figure largely in re-envisionings of the subject matter of earlier poems, particularly in relation to his father. The well-known 'Digging' of Death of a Naturalist , for example, is revisited in the second section of 'Markings', 'The spade nicking the first straight edge along / The tight white string'. Heaney himself has remarked that revisiting earlier themes and settings 'can produce a wonderful re-creative charge' ('One poet in search of a title', The Times , 25 March 2006). Critical opinion marks the maturity and clarity of diction, contrasted with the abstract, visionary and sometimes fantastical subject matter:
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails [. . .]
The title of The Spirit Level (1996) refers to the tool which craftsmen place upon their work to ascertain perfect levelness -- or lack thereof -- and one imagines Heaney evaluating the volume in this same manner. It also alludes to the world of spirit, the soul and the mind's evocations in memory and imagination. The title is fitting, given that Heaney repeatedly drew attention to his own use of language and the crafting of poetry, aligning it with the artisanship of his rural background. Mirrorings of the violence of earlier times resurface in this collection, in the uncompromisingly brutal dream of 'bodies raining down like tattered meat' of 'Mycenae Lookout' (section I, 'The Watchman's War') and more obliquely in 'Sofa in the Forties', which Heaney read at the 2008 Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration. Children's railway games on the sofa depict a cushioned innocence, as the subtlest allusion to German death trains hovers in the radio broadcast over their heads.

Andrew Motion 's review of District and Circle (2006), Heaney's twelfth volume of poems, remarks that he 'confirms existing loyalties, remaps old terrains, and fills his work with tributes to other poets'; nonetheless, he commends the freshness of response ('Digging Deep', Guardian , 1 April 2006). Heaney's celebrated empathy with rural landscape finds expression here in concern for the environment in the face of global warming, although he elsewhere disavowed the notion of an 'ecological phase' in his work (interview with Lawrence Pollard, BBC World News, 17 January 2010); while the perennial theme of a subcutaneous threat of terror and violence translates into terrorist attacks on the London underground, connoted in the title of the volume. The re-vivified Tollund Man of Wintering Out (1972) assumes the role of second millennium companion or guide in a sonnet sequence featuring 'surveillance cameras and closed-circuit TV [. . .], greenhouse gases and acid rain' ('One poet in search of a title', The Times , 25 March 2006). Without abandoning the Ireland of his heritage, Heaney in this volume broadens the scope of his meditations to include international and global concerns.

Heaney's thirteenth and final collection of poetry, Human Chain , was published in 2010. The eponymous poem evokes a group of working men heaving sacks of grain in the manner of a fire brigade; as the closing lines make clear, however, the chain also serves as a figure for human life, both in the broader societal sense and as individual 'mortal coil':
That quick unburdening, backbreak's truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.
Heaney himself described Human Chain as an 'elegiac' work (interview with Jeffrey Brown for PBS NewsHour 's Poetry Series, 24 October 2011). This tone is especially evident in 'Had I not been awake' and 'Chansons d'Aventure', which explore the poet's feelings of helplessness and grief following a stroke in 2006; and in the penultimate poem, 'In the Attic', which compares the struggles of old age to the insecurities of youth. As with much of Heaney's earlier poetry, themes of family and heritage are also prominent in Human Chain , especially in a sequence entitled Album , which reimagines the youth and courtship of the poet's parents.

Apart from volumes of poetry, Heaney's prolific output includes the major prose collections, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (1980), The Government of the Tongue (1988) and The Redress of Poetry Oxford Lectures (1995); and eleven works of translation. Among his essays are reflections on the craft of writing, evaluations of the work of other authors, including his mentors, and discussion of the role and responsibilities of the poet and poetry in modern society. Adamant that poetry should not be 'to make peace', he saw its purpose as ensuring 'the survival of beauty, especially in times when tyrannical regimes threaten to destroy it' (Nobel Prize press release, 5 October 1995). His translations include renderings from the Irish in Sweeney Astray (1984); a version of Sophocles ' Philoctetes , entitled The Cure at Troy (1991); his celebrated and popular Beowulf: a New Translation (1999); and a reworking of Sophocles ' Antigone entitled The Burial at Thebes (2004).

Having taken a PGCE teaching qualification after completing his BA in English language and literature, Heaney's first academic post was at Queen's University, Belfast, in 1966. He was invited to Berkeley, California, as a guest lecturer between 1970 and 1971, returning to his post at Queen's during an escalation in sectarian violence. The following year saw the Bloody Sunday riots, in which thirteen unarmed civil rights campaigners were shot and killed by the British Army. As intensified radicalisation, political involvement and distrust between sectors of the community made Ulster an increasingly inhospitable place, Heaney resigned his academic post at Queen's, and moved his family south to County Wicklow.

Following the publication of Door into the Dark (1969), Heaney became a recognised media commentator, regularly interviewing and presenting on BBC Northern Ireland. After his migration to the south he hosted the radio programme Imprint for Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE) between 1973 and 1977. Coinciding with this venture, he became a member of the Arts Council (1973-8) and was elected a leader of the prestigious native Irish writers' association, Aosdana, effectively naming him a living National Treasure. Three years after resigning from Queen's he resumed his academic career, accepting a teaching post at Carysfort College, Dublin, and the headship the following year. In 1981, however, he took up a five-year visiting professorship at Harvard, by which arrangement he taught for one semester and was free to work at home in Ireland for the other eight months of the year. In 1983, during a spell in Ireland with a group of other poets and the playwright Brian Friel , he was involved in establishing the Field Day Publishing Company, an offshoot of the Field Day Theatre group. Both companies were committed to promoting Irish works and sense of identity. During the period in which he divided his time between Harvard and home, Heaney was also elected to the ambassadorial role of Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory (1984). From 1989 the University of Oxford offered Heaney the post of Professor of Poetry, which he held for a further five years, before returning to Harvard in 1997 as the Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence. Heaney continued to teach at Harvard until 2006, when a stroke forced him to curtail his professional commitments. On the advice of his physicians, Heaney cancelled all public appearances for a year in order to convalesce. In 2007, he resumed his vigorous schedule of lectures, readings and interviews at home and abroad; his seventieth birthday (2009) was an occasion of great festivity throughout Ireland. Heaney's health never fully recovered, however, and on 29 August 2013 he was admitted to a hospital in Dublin after a fall. He died the following morning and, following a widely attended funeral Mass in Donnybrook, was interred at the family grave in Bellaghy, County Londonderry.

Heaney's works amassed an extraordinary number of accolades from Irish, British and international institutions. His first collection, Death of a Naturalist , won the Cholmondeley, Somerset Maugham, and Gregory Awards, plus the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. North won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize in 1976, The Spirit Level took the Whitbread Prize, and District and Circle gained the 2006 T.S. Eliot Prize for the best collection of new verse in English. In 1995 he was awarded the ultimate accolade, that of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His literary prizes were not confined to his extensive poetic output, however: the translation of Beowulf won the Whitbread 'best book' Award in 1999, and his Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001 won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2003. He continued to add to this impressive list for nearly the whole of his career, garnering lifetime achievement awards from Booktrust (2009), the Irish Literary Academy (2011), and the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry (2012).

The most extensive archive of Heaney's personal and literary papers is held by the Woodruff Library of Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. In September 2003 Heaney decided to allow the accumulated letters, printed works, recordings and photographs, dating from 1964, to be acquired by the university as a resource in its special collections and archives. They now form part of the library's significant catalogue of contemporary poets' work, which has a particular focus on major Irish literary figures. Radio Telefis Eireann has an archive of Heaney's recordings for the company, including personal interviews in which he talks about his formative years; the BBC Poetry Archive also contains a substantial cross-section of Heaney's poems, read aloud by the author.

In 2003 the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry was established at the School of English, Queens University, Belfast. It is an international centre for research which hosts the literary journal, The Yellow Nib , a publication dedicated to the promotion of dialogue between genres through the publication of established and emerging writers in a variety of fields. In fact, Heaney's own poetry can be understood in similar terms: promoting dialogue on contentious issues throughout his career. From his own perspective his work aimed to 'create space to break the silence for the unofficial and underprivileged' in a common language (interview with Lawrence Pollard, BBC World Service, 18 January 2010).

Remarking on Heaney's rankings in the bestseller lists, Patrick Crotty makes the pertinent observation that his popularity is comparable to that of prominent figures of mass culture, such as the Beatles and Bob Dylan ('The Context of Heaney's Reception', The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney , ed. Bernard O'Donoghue , 2009). Celebrated as much by the common reader as the literary critic, Heaney occupies a privileged position which straddles the academic and the popular; an established writer within the canon, he nonetheless appeals to the non-academic reader. Even the lay person is seduced by the lush alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia of his early work, as evidenced, for example, in 'the squelch and slap / of soggy peat' of 'Digging' ( Death of a Naturalist ). Despite his massive popularity, however, his work has sometimes been at the centre of controversy.

In her essay 'Heaney and the Feminine' ( The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney , 2009), Fran Brearton discusses Heaney's identification of women with the land and Celtic goddess myths. Although intended affirmatively, linking with a type of rural nationalism manifested in pride of countryside, questions have been raised about how empowering this in fact is for actual women. Citing Edna Longley, Patricia Coughlan and Helen Phillips especially, Brearton points out that several female critics and scholars have identified this reductive tendency within Heaney's works. Focusing on the new translation of Beowulf , for example, Phillips argues that Heaney missed opportunities to examine the overlooked symbolical significance of the female figures in the poem. She attributes this failure to Heaney's use of predetermined and habitual models of writing about women, which prevent his reassessment and, she suggests, 'guides his pen' ('Seamus Heaney's Beowulf ', in The Art of Seamus Heaney , ed. Curtis, 1994, reprinted 2000, cited by Brearton 2008).

An aspect of Heaney's work frequently analysed by critics is its Yeatsian influence, considered by some to be a heavy burden in the early years of his career, but equally as empowering by others. In this sense Heaney has been named 'a late guest at a literary feast celebrated as the Irish Literary Revival' (Terence Brown, Ireland's Literature: Selected Essays , 1988). His supposed striving to equal Yeats 's eminence was noted by Paul Muldoon , in his review of Station Island ('Sweeney Peregrine', London Review of Books, 1-14 November 1984). Religious and political enmity characterised the lives of the Northern Irish poets during the 1970s and, as Muldoon indicates, for some, literary rivalries also lay just beneath the surface. More contentiously, criticism of Heaney's work from the 1970s to date has drawn parallels with what was interpreted as Yeats 's 'fence-sitting' and reaction against the violence of Easter 1916 (Neil Corcoran, 'Heaney and Yeats', The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney , 2009). Heaney is censured for a self-protecting and too even-handed lack of engagement in the 'Troubles' of the era. He is criticised for only commenting obliquely -- rather than engaging closely -- with the atrocities, and for lacking nationalist conviction. Nonetheless, questions of personal responsibility in the face of the violence do frequently erupt in his works, demonstrating Heaney's 'much-haunted and endlessly self-questioning' unease (Corcoran). This subject is examined more closely by Tom Paulin in his essay 'Political Anxiety and Allusion: Seamus Heaney' ( Crusoe's Secret: The Aesthetics of Dissent , 2005).

In his Nobel Prize lecture, Heaney acknowledged his awareness, even as a child, of the multifarious difficulties which would assail him as an adult poet, 'variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible' (Nobel Lecture). Perhaps responding to critics who denigrated his lack of confrontation in the sectarian violence of the 1970s, he described his feeling of being incapable of 'heroic virtue or redemptive effect', nonetheless asserting the power of poetry to guide and strengthen in adversity:
[. . .] the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values.
JW , 2010; revised 2013 




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