Unquestionably the most important and feted Irish poet since WB Yeats, Seamus Heaney is a more troubling and subversive writer than the unanimity of his admirers, or the blandness of his own recent public pronouncements, might suggest.
Threatened by loyalists in the 1960s, criticised by fellow poets Ciaran Carson and James Simmons for a perceived ambivalence regarding republican violence in the 1970s and 80s, Heaney has gained major international recognition for a career founded on the ‘den life’ of a rural Catholic upbringing:
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
Seamus Heaney was born in April 1939 at Mossbawn, the family farm in south Derry. Educated at St Columb’s college in Derry city (fellow pupils included Seamus Deane and Eamonn McCann) and Queen’s University, Belfast, Heaney published overwrought juvenilia in the university magazine, Gorgon, then went on to teach under the supervision of the novelist Michael McLaverty, whose advice is recalled in the poem ‘Fosterage’:
…'Listen. Go your own way.
Do your own work…’
But to hell with overstating it:
‘Don’t have the veins bulging in your biro.’
The poems in Heaney’s early volumes Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969) spoke of and to the rural Irish experience in a voice that echoed and exceeded Kavanagh - pieces like ‘Blackberry-Picking’ were already being taught in primary schools in the early 1970s. But his third collection, North (1975), saw Heaney exploring a new and less comfortable territory.
Viewing the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the prism of a generalised northern, Scandinavian experience, poems like ‘Bog Queen’, ‘The Grauballe Man’ and ‘Strange Fruit’ found symbolic parallels for some of the worst atrocities of the violence at home in ancient sacrificial victims. It seemed that, for Heaney, the political murders of the 1970s were in fact inevitable recurrences of tribal, atavistic ritual:
I who have stood dumb;
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,
who would connive
in civilised outrage,
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.
Oddly enough, it is with 1979’s Field Work, a collection unmistakeably dominated by the influence of the American ‘confessional’ poet Robert Lowell, that Heaney seems to grasp the measure of the Northern Troubles. A book of elegies (most strikingly, ‘Casualty’, a tremendous re-casting of Yeats’ ‘The Fisherman’ into a lament for an eel-fisherman murdered by ‘his own crowd’ in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday) Field Work may well be the high point of Heaney’s career:
How perilous is it to choose
not to love the life we’re shown?
His sturdy dirty body
and interloping grovel.
The intelligence in his bone.
The unquestionable houseboy’s shoulders
that could have been my own.
Heaney’s well-established reputation as a poet was consolidated and complicated by the publication of Preoccupations (1980), the first collection of his critical writings and broadcasts.
In this book and its successors The Government of the Tongue (1986) and The Redress of Poetry (1995), Heaney explores and elucidates his own outlook through consideration of his poetic forebears: Yeats, of course, but also Wordsworth and Hopkins; American near-contemporaries like Roethke, Lowell and Bishop; Englishmen Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin, as well as the Scots ‘lunatic lexicographer’ Hugh MacDiarmid; and, centrally, Patrick Kavanagh, to whom Heaney returns again and again as a touchstone, authenticator and permissive exemplar.
The prose works’ range of memoir and criticism established Heaney as a public commentator—a role in which he has never seemed wholly comfortable—and helped locate his work firmly in a ‘great tradition’ of English-language verse.
The award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 acknowledged Heaney’s huge international stature, and lent credence to the longstanding comparison with Yeats, Nobel laureate in 1923.
In his acceptance speech in Stockholm, Heaney talks of his ‘temperamental disposition towards an art that was earnest and devoted to things as they are’. The speech reveals the wide range of influences and attitudes that lie behind the poetry, the scope of its concerns: political and personal, mystical and anthropological, literary and demotic.
Forty years after the publication of his debut, in 2006 Heaney published his latest collection, District and Circle, both of which are lines on the London underground. The work brings Heaney's preoccupation with art and locality into the 21st century, and re-restablishes Heaney as the foremost poet the north of Ireland has yet produced.