Portrait of an Artist: Seamus Heaney

looks over the life of Seamus Heaney, acclaimed by many as the best Irish poet since Yeats

Photo credit: Burns Library, Boston College

Photo credit: Burns Library, Boston College

Seamus Heaney, the acclaimed Irish poet, alumnus of York, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, died yesterday in a Dublin hospital aged 74, after a short illness. In June, students had the privilege to see Heaney in one of his last public recitals, as he came to our University to be part of the Festival of Ideas. Despite the loss of such a prominent pillar of modern poetry, his work will inevitably continue to stand as a frontier and beacon of our literary heritage.

When I heard of his passing, I was with the friend I attended his recital with. I realised here the duality of the loss. Poets’ words and voices reverberate in your mind, and can become part of your own thoughts, to the extent that the loss is a private one. But Heaney’s work also united people on an international level. Here the loss is a communal one, as his words fused the traditional and earthy Ireland with life’s diversity, the individual and the national.

The close friend of Heaney, poet Michel Longley, said that ‘Just as his presence filled a room, his marvellous poems filled the hearts of generations of readers’. In his poetry Heaney dealt with the trials, sufferings, and ordeals of Ireland’s 20th Century history, but he never strayed from amalgamating his work with a personal tone, and dealing with his own experiences of growing up, of loss, of love, and of the beauty which can always be found in everyday life.

Born on the 13th of April 1939 in the County of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, he was the first of nine children to be born to his father, Patrick, a farmer and cattle-dealer, and his mother, Margaret.

As an academic child, Heaney, at the age of 12 won a scholarship to St Columb’s College (a Catholic boarding school) in Derry. He later went on to study English at Queen’s University Belfast, before training to become a teacher. He became a lecturer in Ireland, the USA and was the Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford from 1989-1994.

His first poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist, was first published in 1966, and from then on he produced numerous collections including: North (1975), The Spirit Level (1996) and his final collection, The Human Chain (2010).

His work as a translator cannot be overlooked either, his version of ‘Beowulf’ (2000) is highly commended.

To end with Heaney’s own words, the following poem, though not one of his most well-known, has always been a favourite of mine. It beautifully displays not only the talent of the poet we have lost, but the poetry that will remain.

“Twice Shy” by Seamus Heaney

Her scarf a la Bardot,
In suede flats for the walk,
She came with me one evening
For air and friendly talk.
We crossed the quiet river,
Took the embankment walk.

Traffic holding its breath,
Sky a tense diaphragm:
Dusk hung like a backcloth
That shook where a swan swam,
Tremulous as a hawk
Hanging deadly, calm.

A vacuum of need
Collapsed each hunting heart
But tremulously we held
As hawk and prey apart,
Preserved classic decorum,
Deployed our talk with art.

Our Juvenilia
Had taught us both to wait,
Not to publish feeling
And regret it all too late –
Mushroom loves already
Had puffed and burst in hate.

So, chary and excited,
As a thrush linked on a hawk,
We thrilled to the March twilight
With nervous childish talk:
Still waters running deep
Along the embankment walk.

Heaney leaves behind his wife Marie, and his three children. On Monday a funeral mass is to take place at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin.

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