Seamus Heaney, Irish Poet of Soil and Strife, Dies
Seamus Heaney, a widely celebrated Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, died at a hospital in Dublin on Friday after a short illness, according to a statement issued on behalf of his family. He was 74.
Mr. Heaney, who was born in Northern Ireland but moved to Dublin in his later years, is recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th century. His fellow poet Robert Lowell described Mr. Heaney as the “most important Irish poet since Yeats.”
In a statement, Faber & Faber, which published his work for nearly 50 years, called him “one of the world’s greatest writers. His impact on literary culture is immeasurable.”
Born April 13, 1939, on a farm near Toomebridge in Co. Derry, Mr. Heaney gained prominence in the 1960s after his debut with the “Death of a Naturalist.” His volumes of poetry include “The Spirit Level,” “District and Circle” and “Bog Poems.”
Under constant pressure to write favorably about the goals of his fellow Catholics, many of whom wanted a Northern Ireland free of British control, his work often dwelt on the sectarian violence in the British province of Ulster.
But he saw both sides of the conflict and never wrote polemics to support the violent campaign of the Irish Republican Army. He resented and attacked British oppression, but admired much in British culture and English literature. He was rare among modern poets in that not only the vast majority of critics and academics praised him, but millions of readers also bought him. By some estimates he was the best-read living poet in the world at in recent decades.
The accessibility of his work helped. It had references to Greek and Celtic legend, but was usually clear, often dazzling with images of nature, epiphanies of the soul. He wrote about bogs and rocks and streams and transformed them into the settings for the moral problems in a way that seemed to reach not only agnostic intellectuals, but also believing Catholics.
In “Digging,” the first poem in his first collection, “The Death of a Naturalist,” he exposed his method:
“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.”
The Irish Times said in an editorial after he won the Nobel Prize: “Book sales may not mean much in the areas of fiction or biography, but for a poet to sell in the thousands is remarkable proof to his ability to speak in his poems to what are inadequately called ‘ordinary people.’ Yet the popularity of his work should not be allowed to obscure the fact that this deep, at times profound poetry, forged through hard thinking and an attentive, always tender openness to the world, especially the natural world.”
Writing in a collection of his lectures in 1995, “The Redress of Poetry, Mr. Heaney said: “It is in the space between the farmhouse and the playhouse that one discovers what I’ve called ‘the frontier of writing,’ the line that divides the actual conditions of our daily lives from the imaginative representations of those conditions in literature.”
In the 1984 collection, “Station Island,” he wrote: “The main thing is to write for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust that imagines its haven like your hands at night, dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast. You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous. Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest.”
He is survived by his wife, Marie, and his children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.
On Twitter, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: “Very shocked & deeply saddened to hear that Seamus Heaney, Derry man, poet & Nobel Laureate has died. My thoughts & prayers with Marie & family.”