Career: Poet, critic, essayist, translator and editor
Seamus Justin Heaney's attempts to develop poetic language in which meaning and sound are intimately related result in concentrated, sensually evocative poems characterized by assonant phrasing, richly descriptive adjectives, and witty metaphors. Heaney's poems also tend to mirror social and cultural divisions in contemporary Northern Ireland. For example, Irish and Gaelic colloquialisms are often intermingled with more direct and straightforward English words for a language that is both resonant and controlled. Viewing the art of poetry as a craft, Heaney stresses the importance of technique as a means to channel creative energies toward sophisticated metaphysical probings. He explores a wide range of subjects in his poems, including nature, love, the relationship between contemporary issues and historical patterns, and legend and myth. Although some critics debate Robert Lowell's assessment of him as "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats," they agree that Heaney is a poet of consistent achievement. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.
Born April 13, 1939, Heaney's childhood in a rural area near Ulster, Northern Ireland, informs much of his poetry, including his first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), for which he won immediate popular and critical success. In most of these poems, Heaney describes a young man's responses to beautiful and threatening aspects of nature. In "Digging," the poem that opens this volume, he evokes the rural landscape where he was raised and comments on the care and skill with which his father and ancestors farmed the land. Heaney announces that as a poet he will metaphorically "dig" with his pen. In many of the poems in his next volume, Door into the Dark (1969), he probes beneath the surface of things to search for hidden meaning. Along with pastoral poems, Heaney focuses on rural laborers and the craftsmanship they display in their work.
Heaney left Northern Ireland when the "troubles" resumed in 1969. After teaching in the United States, he settled with his family in the Republic of Ireland. The poems in Wintering Out (1972) reveal a gradual shift from personal to public themes. Heaney begins to address the social unrest in Northern Ireland by taking the stance of commentator rather than participant. After having read P. V. Glob's The Bog People, an account of the discovery of well-preserved, centuries-old bodies found in Danish bogs, Heaney wrote a series of poems about Irish bogs. Some of the bodies found in Danish bogs are believed to have been victims of primitive sacrificial rituals, and in Wintering Out Heaney projects a historical pattern of violence that unites the ancient victims with those who have died in contemporary troubles. In North (1975), which some consider his finest collection, Heaney continues to use history and myth to pattern the universality of violence. The poems in this volume reflect his attempt to tighten his lyrics with more concrete language and images.
The poems in Field Work (1979) concern a wide range of subjects. Critics praised several love poems dealing with marriage, particularly "The Harvest Bow," which Harold Bloom called "a perfect lyric." In the ten-poem sequence "The Glanmore Sonnets," Heaney describes a lush landscape and muses on such universal themes as love and mortality, ultimately finding order, meaning, and renewal in art. Other books of significance by Heaney include Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (1980) and Sweeney Astray (1984). The former, which includes prose pieces on the origins and development of his poetry as well as essays on other poets, lends insight into Heaney's poetics. Sweeney Astray, a story-poem based on the ancient Irish tale Buile Suibhne, relates the adventures of Suibhne, or Sweeney, as he is transformed from a warrior-king into a bird because of a curse. The narrative follows Sweeney's exile from humanity and his wanderings and hardships as a bird, mixing prose descriptions of events with lyrical renderings of Sweeney's ravings as he responds to the harshness and beauty of nature.
Heaney's next volume of poetry, Station Island (1984), is made up of three sections. The opening part consists of lyrical poems about events in everyday life. The title sequence, which comprises the second section, is based on a three-day pilgrimage undertaken by Irish Catholics to Station Island, where they seek spiritual renewal. While on Station Island, Heaney ruminates on personal and historical events and encounters the souls of dead acquaintances and Irish literary figures who inspire him to reflect upon his life and art. In the third section, "Sweeney Redivivus," Heaney takes on the persona of Sweeney, attempting to recreate Sweeney's highly sensitized vision of life. Although critics debated the success of the three individual sections, most agreed that Station Island is an accomplished work that displays the range of Heaney's talents.
Seamus Heaney is widely recognized as one of Ireland's finest living poets. A native of Northern Ireland who divides his time between a home in Dublin and a teaching position at Harvard University, Heaney has attracted a readership on two continents and has won prestigious literary awards in England, Ireland, and the United States. As Blake Morrison notes in his work Seamus Heaney, the author is "that rare thing, a poet rated highly by critics and academics yet popular with 'the common reader.'" Part of Heaney's popularity stems from his subject matter modern Northern Ireland, its farms and cities beset with civil strife, its natural culture and language overrun by English rule. Washington Post Book World contributor Marjorie Perloff suggests that Heaney is so successful "because of his political position: the Catholic farm boy from County Derry transformed into the sensitive witness to and historian of the Irish troubles, as those troubles have shaped and altered individual lives." Likewise, New York Review of Books essayist Richard Murphy describes Heaney as "the poet who has shown the finest art in presenting a coherent vision of Ireland, past and present." Heaney's "is, after all," writes Robert Buttel in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography (CDBLB), "a poetry manifestly regional and largely rural in subject matter and traditional in structure a poetry that appears to be a deliberate step back into a premodernist world of William Wordsworth and John Clare and to represent a rejection of most contemporary poetic fashions."
To call Heaney a poet of the Irish countryside is to oversimplify his sensibility, however. According to Robert Pinsky in the New Republic, the author also incorporates "a literary element into his work without embarrassment, apology, or ostentation." Indeed, Heaney takes delight in the sounds and histories of words, using language to create "the music of what happens," to quote from one of his poems. "The poet's triumph is to bring the ingredients of history and biography under the control of his music," writes Irvin Ehrenpreis in the New York Review of Books. "Heaney's expressive rhythms support his pleasure in re-echoing syllables and modulating vowels through a series of lines to evoke continuities and resolutions." Nor is Heaney's subject matter merely provincial and pastoral, insulated from broader human perspectives. Morrison notes: "One does not have to look very deeply into Heaney's work ... to see that it is rather less comforting and comfortable than has been supposed. Far from being 'whole,' it is tense, torn, divided against itself; far from being straightforward, it is layered with often obscure allusions; far from being archaic, it registers the tremors and turmoils of its age, forcing traditional forms to accept the challenge of harsh, intractable material.... A proper response to Heaney's work requires reference to complex matters of ancestry, nationality, religion, history, and politics." This is not to say that Heaney's work is difficult or inaccessible, though. Pinsky concludes that the poems "give several kinds of pleasure: first of all, [Heaney] is a talented writer, with a sense of language and rhythm as clean, sweet, and solid as new-worked hardwood. Beyond that, ... his talent [has] the limberness and pluck needed to take up some of the burden of history the tangled, pained history of Ireland. Heaney's success in dealing with the murderous racial enmities of past and present, avoiding all the sins of oratory, and keeping his personal sense of balance, seems to me one of the most exhilarating poetic accomplishments in many years."
Inevitably, Heaney has been compared with the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats; in fact, several critics have called Heaney "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats." Such praise-by-comparison makes the poet uncomfortable, and it serves to obscure the uniqueness of his work. New York Review of Books contributor Richard Ellmann once wrote: "After the heavily accented melodies of Yeats, and that poet's elegiac celebrations of imaginative glories, Seamus Heaney addresses his readers in a quite different key. He does not overwhelm his subjects; rather he allows them a certain freedom from him, and his sharp conjunctions with them leave their authority and his undiminished." Elizabeth Jennings makes a similar observation in the Spectator. To Jennings, Heaney is "an extremely Irish poet most especially in language, but he is not a poet in the Yeatsian mould; not for him high-mannered seriousness or intentional rhetoric. He is serious, of course, but it is the gravity which grows in his roots, not one which is obtrusive in the finished artefact." In the Listener, Conor Cruise O'Brien analyzes the source from which the comparison might have stemmed. "Heaney's writing is modest, often conversational, apparently easy, low-pitched, companionably ironic, ominous, alert, accurate and surprising," notes O'Brien. "An Irish reader is not automatically reminded of Yeats by this cluster of characteristics, yet an English reader may perhaps see resemblances that are there but overlooked by the Irish resemblances coming, perhaps, from certain common rhythms and hesitations of Irish speech and non-speech." Newsweek correspondent Jack Kroll finds similarities in the two poets' subject matter: "Like Yeats, Heaney combines all the conflicting poles of the Irish experience into a rich, embattled language: paganism and Christianity, repression and expansion, desire and chastity, country and city, ignorance and enlightenment, hope and despair."
Kroll is not the only critic who notes "the conflicting poles of Irish experience" in Heaney's work. London Times contributor Bel Mooney also delineates the inner divisions that define and intensify the poet's writing. "Again and again," contends Mooney, "we observe him poised on a pivot, a one-man dialectic in whom opposites are uncomfortably unified. Ulster v Eire; English learning v Irish culture; education v roots; the language of debate v silence and acceptance; liberalism v Catholicism; comfort v guilt; love v loneliness and restlessness; belonging v exile.... It is all there. He knows it well." Ehrenpreis elaborates: "Speech is never simple in Heaney's conception. He grew up as an Irish Catholic boy in a land governed by Protestants whose tradition is British. He grew up on a farm in his country's northern, industrial region. As a person, therefore, he springs from the old divisions of his nation. At the same time, the theme that dominates Heaney's work is self-definition, the most natural subject of the modern lyric; and language, from which it starts, shares the old polarities. For Heaney, it is the Irish speech of his family and district, overlaid by British and urban culture which he had acquired as a student." In a Harper's essay, Terrence Des Pres suggests that Heaney has had "to accommodate, but also shove against, the expansive beauty of the conqueror's tongue in order to recover the rooted speech of his own society and place." Critical Quarterly correspondent John Wilson Foster describes how Heaney remains "suspended between the English and (Anglo-) Irish traditions and cultures. Correlatives of ambivalence proliferate in his verse: the archetypal sound in his work (and to be savoured in the reading) is the guttural spirant, half-consonant, half-vowel; the archetypal locale is the bog, half-water, half-land; the archetypal animal is the eel which can fancifully be regarded (in its overland forays) as half-mammal, half-fish."
Heaney is well aware of the dual perspective afforded him by his upbringing and subsequent experiences. He once described himself in the New York Times Book Review as one of a group of Catholics in Northern Ireland who "emerged from a hidden, a buried life and entered the realm of education." This process began for Heaney at age eleven; that year he left the family farm to study on scholarship at a boarding school in Belfast.
Access to the world of English, Irish, and American letters first at St. Columb's College and then at Queen's University of Belfast was "a crucial experience," according to the poet. He was especially moved by artists who created poetry out of their local and native backgrounds authors such as Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and Robert Frost. Heaney said: "From them I learned that my local County Derry [childhood] experience, which I had considered archaic and irrelevant to 'the modern world' was to be trusted. They taught me that trust and helped me to articulate it."
Searching his cultural roots, but also letting his English literary education enrich his expression, Heaney began to craft "a poetry concerned with nature, the shocks and discoveries of childhood experience on a farm, the mythos of the locale in short, a regional poetry," to quote Robert Buttel in his book Seamus Heaney. This sort of poetry, Buttel continues, was, in the early 1960s, "essentially a counter-poetry, decidedly not fashionable at the time. To write such poetry called for a measure of confidence if not outright defiance."
According to Morrison, a "general spirit of reverence towards the past helped Heaney resolve some of his awkwardness about being a writer: he could serve his own community by preserving in literature its customs and crafts, yet simultaneously gain access to a larger community of letters." Indeed, Heaney's earliest poetry collections Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark evoke "a hard, mainly rural life with rare exactness," in the words of Parnassus: Poetry in Review contributor Michael Wood. Using descriptions of rural laborers and their tasks and contemplations of natural phenomena filtered sometimes through childhood and sometimes through adulthood Heaney seeks the self by way of the perceived experience, celebrating the life force through earthly things. Buttel writes in Seamus Heaney: "Augmenting the physical authenticity and the clean, decisive art of the best of the early poems, mainly the ones concerned with the impact of the recollected initiatory experiences of childhood and youth, is the human voice that speaks in them. At its most distinctive it is unpretentious, open, modest, and yet poised, aware." Kroll notes that in these first poems, Heaney "makes you see, hear, smell, taste this life, which in his words is not provincial, but parochial; provincialism hints at the minor or the mediocre, but all parishes, rural or urban, are equal as communities of the human spirit. So Heaney's poems dig away, filled with a grunting vowel music that evokes the blunt ecstasy of physical work."
In Northern Voices: Poets from Ulster, Terence Brown expresses the view that it is a mistake "to think of Heaney as merely a descriptive poet, endowed with unusual powers of observation. From the first his involvement with landscape and locale, with the physical world, has been both more personal and more remarkable in its implications than any mere act of observation and record could be." Heaney's early poems are not burdened with romantic notions about nature; rather they present nature "as a random power that sometimes rewards but more often frustrates human [efforts]," to quote Arthur E. McGuinness in Eire-Ireland. New York Times Book Review correspondent Nicholas Christopher likewise finds "no folksy, down-home or miniaturist tendencies in [Heaney's] presentation of natural subjects. His voice is complex and his eye keen, but as with any inspired poet, he is after transformations, not reproductions. Nature is neither antagonist nor sounding board but a component of the human imagination."
This latter description outlines the direction Heaney's poetry has taken since he "began to open, both to the Irish, and to his own abyss," in the words of Times Literary Supplement reviewer Harold Bloom. In the poems collected in Wintering Out and North, according to Des Pres, "rural integrity remains intact, but images of violent intent intrude all the same. Which is to say that the structure of Heaney's poetry reflects the shape of life as he knows it to be, a fusion of history and the land, politics colliding with life's daily round. This could hardly be otherwise for a poet growing up in Northern Ireland, where religious and political tensions always threatened to break, as they have since 1969, into madness and bloodshed."
"Seamus Heaney comes from the north of Ireland, and his career has almost exactly coincided with the present span of the `troubles,'" claims Seamus Deane in the Sewanee Review. The "troubles" to which Deane refers are, of course, the violent political struggles between Northern Ireland's Protestants and their British allies and the militant Irish Republican Army. Heaney was living in Belfast when the fighting erupted in 1969; as a Catholic partisan, notes Morrison, "he felt the need to write poetry that would be not necessarily propagandist but certainly urgent in tone." In Critical Quarterly, Damian Grant suggests that Heaney "is no protest poet, but nor can he remain indifferent to the bombs, snipers, and internment camps that maim the body of his land." The poet has sought, therefore, to weave the current Irish troubles into a broader historical frame embracing the general human situation. Deane writes that in Wintering Out and North, "the ancient past and the contemporary present, myth and politics, are in fact analogues for one another.... Mr. Heaney is very much in the Irish tradition in that he has learned, more successfully than most, to conceive of his personal experience in terms of his country's history.... Accent, etymologies, old ritual murders and invasions, contemporary assassinations and security systemsthese and other related elements swarm now more and more thickly, the lethal infusoria in this pellucid verse." New York Review of Books correspondent Richard Murphy suggests that the poetry "is seriously attempting to purge our land of a terrible blood-guilt, and inwardly acknowledging our enslavement to a sacrificial myth. I think it may go a long way toward freeing us from the myth by portraying it in its true archaic shape and color, not disguising its brutality."
Heaney has found a powerful metaphor for current violence in the archaeological discoveries made in peat bogs in Ireland and northern Europe. The chemical nature of the water in the bogs preserves organic material buried in them including human beings. In 1969 Heaney read The Bog People, by P. V. Glob, an archaeologist who had unearthed the preserved remains of several ritually slaughtered Iron Age Europeans. Des Pres quotes Heaney on the impact this work had on his poetry: "The unforgettable photographs of these victims blended in my mind with photographs of atrocities, past and present, in the long rites of Irish political and religious struggles." Although the first of the well-known "bog poems" appeared in Wintering Out, published in 1972, Heaney continued the sequence in North, published in 1975. Eight of the poems in that sequence were brought together in a limited edition entitled Bog Poems that same year.
Heaney's bog poems, according to Murphy, trace "modern terrorism back to its roots in the early Iron Age, and mysterious awe back to the 'bonehouse' of language itself.... He looks closely ... at our funeral rites and our worship of the past.... The central image of this work, a symbol which unifies time, person, and place, is bogland: it contains, preserves, and yields up terror as well as awe." "What makes Heaney different is the archetypal dimension of his poetic involvement with Irish culture," writes Gregory A. Schirmer in Eire-Ireland. "Nowhere is this more evident and nowhere is Heaney's art more transcendent than in the poems that Heaney has written about the peat bogs of Ireland and Jutland and the treasures and horrors that they have preserved. Heaney has developed the image of the bog into a powerful symbol of the continuity of human experience that at once enables him to write about the particularities of his own parish, past and present, and to transcend, at the same time, those particularities." In "Punishment," for instance, Heaney interprets one of the victims (a young girl) as an adulteress. Buttel explains in CDBLB, "The speaker's sympathy for the [young girl] pulls him erotically: 'I almost love you'; 'I am the artful voyeur / of your brain's exposed / and darkened combs, / your muscles' webbing.' But as he compares her with 'your betraying sisters' in the present who have presumably been punished, 'cauled in tar,' for consorting with British soldiers, he feels himself caught between the 'civilized outrage' at which he 'would connive' and his understanding of 'the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge' to which the Iron Age adulteress had been subjected."
Some critics have detected another dimension to the bog imagery in Heaney's poems. According to Helen Vendler in the New Yorker, these works "represent Heaney's coming to grips with an intractable element deep both in personal life (insofar as the bog and its contents represent the unconscious) and in history. They lift him free from a superficial piety that would put either sectarian or national names to the Ulster killings, and they enable a hymn to the 'ruminant ground.' ... He remarks dissolution and change by tasting things as they grow sour, feeling them sink in himself, losing part of himself bubbling in the acrid changes of fermentation." Stand contributor Terry Eagleton likewise feels that the bog landscape "furnishes the imagery for a self-exploration, as the movement of sinking into the bog becomes symbolic of a meditative psychological return to the roots of personal identity; and it does all this while preserving and deepening the kind of discourse which has always been Heaney's chief poetic strengththe discourse of material Nature itself." Brown writes: "The imagination has its dark bog-like depths, its sediments and strata from which images and metaphors emerge unbidden into the light of consciousness.... Such a sense of self as bound up with, and almost indistinguishable from, the dense complex of Irish natural and historical experience, obviously allows Heaney to explore Ulster's contemporary social and political crisis through attending to his own memories and obsessions." McGuinness suggests that digging into the "bog" of his imagination as well as into the sediments of the real bog "has convinced Heaney that, even in these desperate times, one might hope to connect with life-enhancing elemental powers and, through the discipline of language, to give these connections shape." However, Heaney dropped the bog imagery in his poetry after the publication of North. Buttel explains in CDBLB: "The intensity of the poems derives from what Heaney has referred to as his entrancement with the material, but at the same time the interest led to a near surfeit of archeological imagery and Nordic vocabulary. Having completed North, he came to feel a 'self-consciousness about the bogs and so forth.' He also felt a need to open up the narrow poetic lines of two and three stresses and escape from a 'sense of constriction.'"
Morrison suggests that the role of political spokesman has never particularly suited Heaney. The author "has written poems directly about the Troubles as well as elegies for friends and acquaintances who have died in them; he has tried to discover a historical framework in which to interpret the current unrest; and he has taken on the mantle of public spokesman, someone looked to for comment and guidance," notes Morrison. "Yet he has also shown signs of deeply resenting this role, defending the right of poets to be private and apolitical, and questioning the extent to which poetry, however 'committed,' can influence the course of history." In the New Boston Review, Shaun O'Connell contends that even Heaney's most overtly political poems contain depths that subtly alter their meanings. "Those who see Seamus Heaney as a symbol of hope in a troubled land are not, of course, wrong to do so," O'Connell states, "though they may be missing much of the undercutting complexities of his poetry, the backwash of ironies which make him as bleak as he is bright." Deane makes a similar assessment, claiming that under sustained reading "the poems express no politics and indeed they flee conceptual formulations with an almost indecent success. Instead they interrogate the quality of the relationship between the poet and his mixed political and literary traditions.... Relationship is unavoidable, but commitment, relationship gone sour, is a limiting risk." Partisan Review contributor Deborah Tall feels that, in Heaney's poetry, "the burden is not so much to act politically as to speak for his unspoken-for peasant countrymen."
In 1972 Heaney left Belfast for the opportunity to live in a cottage outside Dublin, where he could write full time. The move had political overtones even though Heaney made it for financial reasons; Morrison observes that the subsequent poetry in Field Work "is deeply conscious of that move into the countryside." Morrison adds: "It was not surprising that the move should have been seen by some as a betrayal of the Northern Catholic community and should have aroused in Heaney feelings of unease and even guilt. One important consequence was the new seriousness he brought to his thinking about the writer and his responsibilities." At his retreat in Glanmore, Heaney reasserted his determination to produce fresh aesthetic objects, to pursue his personal feelings as member of and not spokesman for church, state, and tribe. Denis Donoghue comments in the New York Times Book Review that in Field Work "Heaney is writing more powerfully than ever, more fully in possession of his feeling, more at home in his style. He has given up, at least for the moment, the short line of his earlier poems, which often went along with a brittle, self-protective relation to his experience. The new long line is more thoughtful, it brings a meditative music to bear on fundamental themes of person and place, the mutuality of ourselves and the world."
A further liberating experience occurred at Glanmore when Heaney began to undertake the translation and adaptation of the Irish lyric poem Buile Suibhne. The work concerns an ancient king who, cursed by the church, is transformed into a mad bird-man and forced to wander in the harsh and inhospitable countryside. Heaney's translation of the epic was published as Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish; in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Buttel contends that the poem "reveals a heartfelt affinity with the dispossessed king who responds with such acute sensitivity, poetic accuracy, and imaginative force to his landscape." New York Times Book Review contributor Brendan Kennelly also deems the poem "a balanced statement about a tragically unbalanced mind. One feels that this balance, urbanely sustained, is the product of a long, imaginative bond between Mr. Heaney and Sweeney." Indeed, this bond is extended into Heaney's 1984 volume Station Island, where a series of poems entitled "Sweeney Redivivus" take up Sweeney's voice once more. Buttel sees these poems as part of a larger theme in Station Island; namely, "a personal drama of guilt, lost innocence, and lost moral and religious certainty played against the redemptions of love, faith in the integrity of craft and of dedicated individuals, and ties with the universal forces operating in nature and history."
Station Island also introduces a spiritual theme that Heaney had not developed strongly before. "The tone," declares Buttel in CDBLB, "is devout and properly purgatorial." Buttel quotes Times Literary Supplement contributor Blake Morrison as calling the volume "a religious book and no getting around itintense, superstitious, pantheistic, even mystical, and at times very difficult to decipher.... it gives us a rather different poet from the one we thought we knew." "Actually," Buttel continues, "the poet is not very different: we still hear the essential Heaney voice ... and find not unusual variations on his central themes." Instead, the CDBLB contributor continues, "the sequence becomes a complex though accessible narrative concerned not only with spiritual inadequacy, which includes a failure of personal response to the pattern of violence in the North [of Ireland], but also with atonement. The sequence is also a pilgrimage of the persona as poet coming to terms with himself, attempting to perfect his artistic sensibility. It is fitting in this regard that his penance is to translate a poem by Saint John of the Cross, which is just what he does in section 9the spiritual and poetic acts thus conjoined."
Language and the action of writing have always been central preoccupations for Heaney, but especially so in his more recent works. Morrison contends that the author's poetry has been shaped "by the modes of post-war Anglo-American poetry" as well as by the romantic tradition. Moreover, continues Morrison, "Heaney's preoccupation with language and with questions of authorial control makes him part of a still larger modern intellectual movement which has emphasized that language is not a transparent medium by means of which a writer says what he intends to, but rather something self-generating, infinitely productive, exceeding us as individuals." As A. Alvarez puts it in the New York Review of Books, Heaney "is not rural and sturdy and domestic, with his feet planted firmly in the Irish mud, but is instead an ornamentalist, a word collector, a connoisseur of fine language for its own sake." Washington Post Book World contributor John B. Breslin writes: "Like every poet, Heaney is a professional deceiver, saying one thing and meaning another, in a timeless effort at rescuing our language from the half-attention we normally accord it. Words matter because they are his matter, and ours, the inescapable medium of exchange between two otherwise isolated sets of experience."
This fascination with words is evident in The Haw Lantern, published in 1987; Times Literary Supplement reviewer Neil Corcoran feels that the poems in that work "have a very contemporary sense of how writing is elegy to experience." W. S. DiPiero explains Heaney's intent in the American Scholar: "Whatever the occasion childhood, farm life, politics and culture in Northern Ireland, other poets past and present Heaney strikes time and again at the taproot of language, examining its genetic structures, trying to discover how it has served, in all its changes, as a culture bearer, a world to contain imaginations, at once a rhetorical weapon and nutriment of spirit. He writes of these matters with rare discrimination and resourcefulness, and a winning impatience with received wisdom." Heaney, declares Buttel in CDBLB, remains "in a long tradition of Irish writers who have flourished in the British literary scene, showing the Britons new possibilities for poetry in their mother tongue."
With the publication of New and Selected Poems 1966-1987, Heaney marked the beginning of a new direction in his career. Michael Dirda, writing in the Washington Post Book World, notes that a collection of "selected poems" is almost redundant for a poet of Heaney's stature and popularity. The reviewer points out that "where a 'Collected Poems' is a monument, a 'Selected' is an invitation, a sometimes needed ice-breaker for shy new readers." "In truth," Dirda concludes, Heaney "is probably one of the few poets who doesn't really need a Selected Poems. Anyone who cares for poetry already knows that he should be reading him. And anyone who likes his work will want to own it all." Poetry contributor William Logan questions how successful the poet has been in this new direction, saying, "The younger Heaney wrote like a man possessed by demons, even when those demons were very literary demons; the older Heaney seems to wonder, bemusedly, what sort of demon he has become himself." Another critic also notices that some of the material in New and Selected Poems marks a significant departure from Heaney's established earlier work, but holds a higher opinion of Heaney's success than does Logan. "After a while," declares Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "a poet moves on or risks becoming Poet Laureate of himself. The moving-on is tough. It is not, like the pioneer's, necessarily to greener or more promising land. Departure may be from the poet's best work." This new collection, Eder explains, "is a record of triumph, but the risks show themselves too. Dry spots, elaborations, explorations that seem unrevealing, and even a turn or two of Self-Laureating while the strength gathers for another mortal departure." Yet this is a strength, both of the poet and of his poetry, Eder declares. Heaney "has a belief about a poet's progress. He suggests that the early and middle stages have to do with finding and mastering the individuality of roots, experience and voice; with becoming wonderfully oneself." Once this is accomplished, Eder concludes, the poet can then "work free of it free of [his] images, landscapes, battlefields and perfected complexities."
In another poetry collection, Seeing Things: Poems, Heaney demonstrates even more clearly the direction in which he is taking his career. Jefferson Hunter, reviewing the book for the Virginia Quarterly Review, shows that in some of the poems in Seeing Things Heaney has taken a more spiritual, less concrete approach than had been his habit previously. "Words like 'spirit' and 'pure,' as opposed to words like `reek' and `hock,' have never figured largely in Heaney's poetry," the critic explains. In the portion of the book titled "Squarings," "they create a new distanced perspective and indeed a new mood ... [in which] `things beyond measure' or `things in the offing' or `the longed-for' can sometimes be sensed, if never directly seen." Heaney also creates a direct link between himself and some of his ancient predecessors, Hunter continues. "`The Golden Bough' translates the famous passage of Aeneid VI wherein the Sybil tells the hero what talisman he must carry on his trip to the underworld, while `The Crossing' translates Dante's and Virgil's confrontation with the angry Charon in Inferno III." In another poem, "Heaney recalls being carried piggyback by his father; a simile compares himself as a child to `a witless elder rescued from the fire'; but that simile in turn recalls Aeneas carrying his father Anchises away from burning Troy." Hunter concludes, "No previous Heaney volume not even Station Island, with its terza rima Dantesque encounters with older poetshas been so literary, so determined to establish lines of poetic affiliation."
Seamus Heaney made a rather uncharacteristic media splash with his translation of the Anglo-Saxon narrative epic Beowulf. Appearing in Britain in 1999, the translation brought an unexpected surge of interest from the book-buying public. But when it came up against J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Bloomsbury) for the 1999 Whitbread Book of the Year Award and won by a single vote, the publicity that resulted from the absurd pairing of potential winners brought unprecedented sales for a 1,000-year-old tale. In March 2000, Beowulf was the #1 bestseller in England and 60,000 copies were in print in the United States.
Although one of the disgruntled Whitbread judges who favored Harry Potter called Heaney's translation "a boring book about dragons," critics have given the book high praise. Paul Gray, writing for Time, marveled at the "marvelous language that Heaney has found to set this old warhorse of a saga running again." He added, "Much that seemed off-putting about Beowulf to modern readers becomes, in Heaney's retelling, eerily intriguing instead."
Critical reaction to Heaney's body of work has been almost universally positive. "Only the most gifted poets can start from their peculiar origin in a language, a landscape, a nation, and from these enclosures rise to impersonal authority," writes Ehrenpreis. "Seamus Heaney has this kind of power.... One may enter his poetry by a number of paths, but each joins up with others. Nationality becomes landscape; landscape becomes language; language becomes genius." Des Pres concludes that Heaney's audience should "read him for his excellence, and then for the way he meets the challenge of politics and manages to honor beauty's plea. Then read him again for a perspective on our own predicament. For to judge from most recent American poetry, we stick to flowers and sidestep the rage, ignoring what we know or turning it to metaphor merely.... What we need is what he givesa poetry that allows the spirit to face and engage, and thereby transcend, or at least stand up to, the murderous pressures of our time. This need is not a question of praxis or ideology, but of imagination regaining authority and of spirit bearing witness to its own misfortune and struggle." In Seamus Heaney, Buttel remarks: "Heaney continues to write his own poetry, carrying on his essential contribution to the flourishing state of Irish poetry today. For all its native authenticity, however, his is not an insular poetry. Seamus Heaney's best poems define their landscape and human experience with such visceral clarity, immediacy, and integrity of feeling that they transcend their regional source and make a significant contribution to contemporary poetry written in English."
In an interview published in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden, Heaney offered some insight into his craftsmanship. "One thing I try to avoid ever saying at readings is ` my poem,'" he said, "because that sounds like a presumption. The poem came, it came. I didn't go and fetch it. To some extent you wait for it, you coax it in the door when it gets there. I prefer to think of myself as the host to the thing rather than a big-game hunter." Elsewhere in the same interview he commented: "You write books of poems because that is a fulfillment, a making; it's a making sense of your life and it gives achievement, but it also gives you a sense of growth."
Source: Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 18 vols. Gale, 1998.