Heir to Yeats won Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995
Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet whose verse captured the transcendent power, darkness and humanity of his conflicted homeland, died Aug. 30 at a hospital in Dublin. He was 74.
His death was announced in a statement released by his family and his publisher, Faber and Faber. The cause was not disclosed, but he was in failing health after a stroke in 2006.
In accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, Heaney acknowledged another Irish Nobel laureate, William Butler Yeats, and the power of Yeats’ verse to define an Ireland beyond the violence of its independence almost a century ago. Heaney came to give voice to another period of violent upheaval that defined his native province of Ulster for much of his 50-year writing career.
The poet Robert Lowell called Heaney the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. The poet Paul Muldoon, a student of Heaney’s in the 1960s, said his mentor was “actually the most popular Irish poet ever,” although Heaney would have been indifferent to such ranking.
In 1999, Heaney’s acclaimed translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf” became an international bestseller.
Muldoon, a professor at Princeton and the New Yorker’s poetry editor, said he spoke this week to Heaney, who told him he was too ill to attend an event in England that the two were planning in September. But his death was unexpected. “It really hasn’t struck me,” Muldoon said.
Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, said in a statement that “there are no words to describe adequately our nation’s and poetry’s grief at the passing of Seamus Heaney.”
Seamus Justin Heaney was born April 13, 1939, into a Catholic farming family in rural County Derry in Northern Ireland. Heaney (pronounced Heen-ee) spoke and wrote freely of the link between his life and his art and demonstrated an extraordinary power of observation and recall. He was interested in the formative experiences of other writers just as his boyhood presented abiding images that ran keenly through his work.
In addressing the Swedish Academy in 1995, he spoke of how his farmhouse became a sanctuary against a world at war (American troops were amassing near his home town), and how he could at once hear the family workhorse on the other side of the bedroom wall and the muffled voices of his elders elsewhere. The radio, with its disembodied voices in different accents, fed his innate interest in language and the spoken word.
Muldoon said that “what makes him a great poet is his really uncanny ability to give back the physical world in ways whereby you see things as if for the first time.”
The sectarian strife in Northern Ireland between nationalists and loyalists pitted the Catholic minority against the Protestant majority.
Heaney was wary of becoming a mouthpiece for the Republican movement and was accused on the other side of being a “Papist” propagandist. With a young family in a volatile city where people were being murdered for their religion, he moved to Wicklow, near Dublin, in the Irish Republic. When he addressed “the Troubles” in his poems, he did so obliquely and cautiously.
In 1975, he published “North,” a collection that included the poem, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” a reference to the perils of declaring one’s religion in Northern Ireland to inquiring strangers. He also wrote poems that ostensibly spoke of ancient outcasts whose remains were found in Scandinavian bogs, but the verse was an allegory for the way the Irish Republican Army would tar and feather Catholic women who fraternized with British soldiers.
He came into contact with other significant poets, including Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky and Robert Hass.
In various interviews, Heaney listed several poets whose work inspired him, many of them drawn to the pain and joy of simple rural life – Thomas Hardy, Geoffrey Chaucer, Robert Frost and Heaney’s compatriot, Patrick Kavanagh.