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Obituary: Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

Poet Seamus Heaney pictured in Hay-On-Wye, England in 2006.  (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Poet Seamus Heaney pictured in Hay-On-Wye, England in 2006. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

FAMOUSLY described by American poet Robert Lowell as “the most important Irish poet since Yeats”, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney was undoubtedly the most popular and widely read living poet until his time of death.

Nicknamed “Famous Seamus” by many of his peers and contemporaries, Heaney’s sales make up two thirds of the market of poetry books in Ireland and the UK, his books continuing to sell in the tens of thousands.

In the context of Irish poetry, the most clear and obvious comparisons with Seamus Heaney have always been those of W.B. Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh.

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As an Irish poet, Heaney occupied the middle ground between Yeats and Kavanagh, combining the intense, sometimes political, lyrics of Yeats with the common touch and landscape portraits of Ireland often found in the work of Kavanagh.

In a wider context, however, the influences that come through most strongly are those of British poet Ted Hughes and American poet Robert Frost.

Like Hughes, Heaney’s nature-based lyric poems drew heavily from the work of William Wordsworth.

Both Heaney and Hughes used nature as a way of grounding their poems in the physical world, but composed poems that equally were influenced by memories of childhood, some of which are idyllic, some of which are, times, fearful.

In the poem Death of a Naturalist, Heaney details a young boy’s exploit in by a pond, where the boy is collecting frogspawn from a flax-dam.  The poem details the child’s education on frogs from a teacher, which fills him with innocence.

However, another trip to the dam is less fruitful; the boy feels threatened by the frogs and flees the flax- dam, his innocence lost. It is a signature Heaney poem; a characteristic theme that crops up again and again in his work.

Farmer-poet Robert Frost’s poems, like Kavanagh, explored rural life in a way which evoked Heaney’s more rural-based poems, inspired by his life in Mossbawn, the farm in Derry on which he grew up.

Like Frost, Heaney suffered personal tragedy at quite a young age. The poet’s brother, Christopher, was killed in a road traffic accident at the age of four, which Heaney elegized in poem’s such as Mid-Term Break and The Blackbird of Glanmore.

A degree of guilt and loss hangs over some of Heaney’s most personal work, which may have stemmed from the loss of his brother.

Heaney’s first major collection of poems, Death of a Naturalist, was published by London publisher Faber & Faber in 1966 and placed the Derry poet in the company of major British poets published by Faber at that time, including Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes.

Digging, the first poem in Death of a Naturalist, contains an analogy between writing and digging; between the world of one’s imagination and the physical world of the poet’s father.

Ending on the now-iconic final stanza of “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests/ I’ll dig with it”, it was this intent on mining one’s past, one’s memory that would define Heaney’s oeuvre.

Later poems, such as those in 1975’s North and 1979’s Field Work would touch on the Troubles in the north of Ireland, which the poet had originally intended not to write about, though eventually did.

Poems such as A Constable Calls, Casualty and After a Killing would detail sectarianism and murder in ways that were chilling and unsettling.

Born on a farm near Toomebridge in Derry in April 1939, Heaney migrated south of the border in the 1970’s, which caused a stir in the press in the North, leading some to think that the ultimate Ulster poet was “selling out” by moving south.

Having lived in Wicklow for many years, Heaney eventually moved to Sandymount, Dublin 4, where he made his home until his time of death.

While Heaney had already established himself as a household name in poetry, the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 elevated the poet far ahead of his Irish, British and American peers, which the poet, at the worst of times, found uneasy.

In Out of the Marvelous, an RTÉ documentary detailing the poet’s life, Heaney and wife Marie conceded that there were other poets who may have been, and may have felt, more deserving of literature’s highest award.

Most remarkable about Heaney was the way in which he carried himself; despite the numerous awards, medals of honour and honourary degrees that he amassed over his remarkable career, Heaney has always been characterized as a humble, gentle, kind and approachable man.

In an interview with American chat show host Charlie Rose, shortly after being awarded the Nobel Prize, Heaney described an episode in the 1970’s detailing his feelings about being associated with the title “poet”.

When enrolling his son Christopher in a school in Wicklow, the headmaster asked Heaney for his profession. Heaney replied “Oh, you can just put in teacher, or educator”.

Heaney watched as the headmaster filled in the field on the enrolment form with “Fíle”, which means “poet”, as Gaeilge. This, surely, is a mark of Heaney’s own humble nature and the regard with which ordinary people held him.

Seamus Justin Heaney, poet and teacher: Mossbawn, Castledawson, Co Derry 13 April 1939; Professor of Poetry, Oxford University 1989–94; Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, Harvard University (formerly Visiting Professor) 1985–97; Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence, Harvard University 1998–2007; Nobel Prize for Literature 1995; married 1965 Marie Devlin (two sons, one daughter); died Dublin 30 August 2013.

 

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