We remember Seamus Heaney

“He is a rare thing in the literary world—a bestselling poet, and superb craftsman, a charismatic performer, an intelligent scholar, and an exemplary person. . . . Heaney has forged a body of work that deserves both the popular and critical acclaim that it has received.” 

Thus says Henry Hart in the summer 2006 issue of the Sewanee Review, preemptively summing up the life and career of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney who died recently following a short illness.

Seamus Heaney published two poems, “In Memoriam: Sean O’Riada” and “The Badgers,” in the spring 1976 issue of the Sewanee Review, the first of three Sewanee Review issues on the literature of Ireland. “The Badgers” later appeared in his collection “Field Work,” alongside his famous poem “Casualty.”

Though this was his only appearance in the Sewanee Review, his work and influence is discussed frequently by critics in the pages of the magazine. In a critical piece analyzing the celebrity of “Famous Seamus,” Jonathan Allison describes Heaney as a “tightrope walker, treading a fine line between political commitment and detachment, between Irish and British traditions. . . . He recognizes a complexity which makes him avoid simplistic partisanship, and this is one of the things we look for in a poet.” David Mason recounts, “what attracted me to the poems was a whole verbal texture that seemed excitingly unfamiliar, and the whiff of something dangerously significant in their political subjects. Here was a poet for the public.”

photo of Heaney in 1980, via

Heaney’s career was a struggle with Auden’s declaration that “poetry makes nothing happen”—a line that fittingly comes from Auden’s poem remembering Heaney’s countryman and fellow giant of Irish literature W. B. Yeats. In some of his most well-known poems, including “Digging” and “The Tollund Man,” Heaney employs the traditions of poetics to address personal and societal conflict of the present, saying of his “squat pen:” “I’ll dig with it.” Henry Hart acknowledges the power and lasting relevance of Heaney’s work, saying, In a world of surveillance cameras, military armor and armaments, and iron-willed terrorists bent on taking sacrificial stands for the otherworldly ideals, Heaney stands for circling the differences, for bring contraries together into a creative union.” Listen to Heaney read “The Tollund Man” and “Digging,” along with other poems, essays, and lectures at the Poetry Foundation, and watch eleven videos of Heaney reading his poetry, compiled by Buzzfeed.

“Digging” was included in Seamus Heaney’s debut volume of poetry, “The Death of a Naturalist”—a smash hit, if such a thing exists in poetry. He went on to publish thirteen volumes of poetry, including “Stations” (1975), “North” (1975), “Field Work” (1979), “Station Island” (1984), and “District and Circle” (2006), along with various prose collections and translations. With his 1999 translation of “Beowulf,” Heaney became one of a handful of poets to grace the New York Time’s best sellers list.

As Henry Hart notes, Heaney was one of those rare writers who became canonically significant in the span of their life. Fellow Sewanee Review contributor Robert Lowell called him, “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.” His standing in the world of letters was affirmed repeatedly with his collection of some of the most prestigious awards in literature. In 1995 he became the fourth Irishman—following W. B. Yeats, George Benard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett—to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Hart notes that despite his accolades Heaney’s eye never strayed far from the task of writing: “Heaney tried to downplay the [Nobel Prize’s] significance. He routinely refers to the Nobel Prize as ‘the Stockholm thing’ and ‘the N-word’ and continues to write in the monastic solitude of his attic in Dublin.” You can read the lecture Heaney delivered upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 at the Nobel Foundation, as well as his conversation with the Paris Review for their the Art of Poetry series.

A host of publications and individual voices remember Heaney, that colossal figure of poetic verve and humanitarian impact. A number of personal accounts stand out in the flow of writing, including a eulogy delivered by Paul Muldoon at Heaney’s funeral, published by the New Yorker (along with two other memorials), and novelist and friend Andrew O’Hagan’s account of his relationship with Heaney for the Guardian. The editors at the Guardian have also compiled reactions from a sundry of figures.

His last words, sent to his wife via text message, were in Latin: noli timere, do not be afraid. Like his poetry, the phrase is personal and universal, immediate and lasting. We would like to conclude with these words, again from Henry Hart: “If his early poems were like trees rooted deep in Irish history and soil, he wanted his new poems to be inverted trees with their roots in heaven.”