About Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013) was the eldest child of nine born to a farming family in County Derry, Northern Ireland. He won a scholarship to St Columb’s College, Derry, beginning an academic career that would lead, through Queen’s University Belfast, where his first books of poems were written, to positions including Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard and the Oxford Professor of Poetry. As a poet, Heaney has become both critically feted and publicly popular. Among his many awards are the Nobel Prize for Literature 1995 and the Whitbread prize (twice); he was made a Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1996.
Heaney’s poetry is grounded in actual, local detail, often in memories of Derry or observation of his adopted home in the Republic of Ireland. ‘Death of a Naturalist’, the title poem of his first collection, finds a moment of horror at nature that is all the more telling for the precise details, such as the “frogspawn that grew like clotted water”. Recent Irish history is one of the strongest influences on these details, appearing in its most outspoken form in the poems from North, but often obliquely present elsewhere.
In ‘Fosterling’, Heaney writes of “waiting until I was nearly fifty / to credit marvels”; his later poetry is certainly open to the marvellous, such as the mysterious ship that appears to the monks in the extract from ‘Squarings’. His ability to unite this with the local is praised in his Nobel nomination for poems “which exalt everyday miracles”. ‘The Skylight’, a poem about the fitting of an unwanted window into the roof of his study, leads to an almost Damascene response to the wonder of this light streaming into his room; more threateningly, a trip on ‘The Underground’ becomes permeated with myths from Ovid, Hansel & Gretel and Eurydice.
In his intimate reading style, Heaney balances a sense of natural speech with his commitment to what he described as “a musically satisfying order of sounds”. This grants full weight to the formal skill that shapes the poems, yet gives the impression that we are being confided in by the man whose poetry, according to the Swedish Academy, is distinguished by “lyrical beauty and ethical depth”.
When Seamus Heaney died in August 2013, tributes flowed from around the English-speaking world. UK Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, said that for his “brothers and sisters in poetry, he came to be the poet we all measured ourselves against and he demonstrated the true vocational nature of his art for every moment of his life. He is irreplaceable.” Poetry Archive Director, Andrew Motion, called Heaney “a great poet, a wonderful writer about poetry, and a person of truly exceptional grace and intelligence.” For poet Don Paterson, “the death of this beloved man seems to have left a breach in the language itself”. Matthew Hollis, Faber & Faber Poetry Editor, said Heaney had been “a father figure: the head of our poetry household.” And former U.S. President Bill Clinton said: “Both his stunning work and his life were a gift to the world. His mind, heart, and his uniquely Irish gift for language made him our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives and a powerful voice for peace. And he was a good and true friend.”
This recording was made on 4 October 2005 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.
Poems by Seamus Heaney
Books by Seamus Heaney
W. B. Yeats: Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney
The Redress of Poetry
The Testament of Cresseid
Enitharmon Editions, 2004
District and Circle
The Testament of Cresseid
Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish
Cholmondeley AwardPrize website
Geoffrey Faber Memorial PrizePrize website
EM Forster Award
Duff Cooper Memorial Prize North
Eric Gregory Award
Nobel Prize for LiteraturePrize website
Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des LettresPrize website
T S Eliot Prize (winner), District and Circle
David Cohen Prize for Literature 2009 David Cohen Prize for Literature