Seamus Heaney: A Writer, Poet, and Critic

Learn about the key aspects of Seamus Heaney's poetry, for whom poem and life are inseparably linked.

Seamus Heaney: A Writer, Poet, and Critic
Heaney extended Celtic motifs over the world, but always in his own voice. Credit: Wikipedia

Seamus Heaney was a writer, professor, and critic. He was born in Northern Ireland on April 13, 1939; before devoting himself fully to writing -between 1966 and 1972- he taught at Queens University in Belfast, where ten years earlier he had studied literature. In 1972 the writer chose to move to Dublin, where he taught from 1975 to 1980 at Carysfort College, and between 1989 and 1994 he was a professor of poetry at Oxford University, England.

The Irishman's first poems were published under the pseudonym "Incertus", at the time Heaney studied in Belfast. His first book, Death of a Naturalist, was published in 1966. His work also includes books such as Human Chain -this is his latest compilation of poems. In 2000 Heaney published an English translation of Beowulf, highly successful in the United States and England, and the winner of the Whitbread Prize.

In October 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which recognized "works of lyrical beauty and profound ethics that exalt everyday miracles and the living past". Today, the living past is not only the work but also the poet. Seamus Heaney died after a short, or perhaps a long illness, a beautiful illness that lasted 74 years, that strange illness that poets suffer from.

Seamus Heaney poems

Even though literary prizes are a good way to get an author's name out there, they shouldn't be the only reason to read Seamus Heaney's work. The Nobel Prize for Literature is like a calling card for Seamus Heaney. Heaney was an Irish poet, playwright, and translator who was as well-known as William Butler Yeats and Patrick Pearse.

Seamus Heaney, who was born in the village of Castledawson in the north of Ireland in April 1939, has written a lot about the conflict in Ireland. It is one of the most important themes in his poetry. His poetry became well-known in part because of how he thought about the conflict between the South and North of Ireland, but he didn't just write about that. His first collections of poems, Death of a Naturalist, Door into the Dark, and Wintering Out, show how he got started as a poet during his early years. These collections show how he saw nature and became sexually aware.

In his fourth book of poems, called Stations, this author thinks more deeply about how violent the conflict between the South and the North was. This is a theme he will continue to explore over the next few years. But the poet doesn't sadly show violence. Instead, he shows it as another part of the society he lived in. So, his poetry is a response to the cruelty of the political situation, which would last for more than 25 years.

Heaney writes about his home country of Ireland, but he doesn't get too sad about it. Instead, he uses it as the setting for a portrait of feelings that is sensitive but not overly sentimental. The conflict in the North of Ireland is where Heaney's middle work begins. For this part to make sense, a bit of history will be needed to help people remember.

Heaney doesn't reveal violence morbidly but as part of his societal background.

Blood was spilled on the streets of this country for decades because nationalist Catholics in the North and Protestant Unionists in the South were treated unfairly. This went on from the 1960s until 1997. So, the North tried to find its national identity in the Celtic revival, which brought back the old traditions of the people who made up the Irish nation. Seamus Heaney's poetry helped to keep this sense of belonging alive in some ways.

Death of a Naturalist is about a young country boy learning about knowledge and sexuality. Later, in the North, the poet's voice has already grown up in the face of a violent political reality. The beginnings of Seamus Heaney's poems show a landscape and memories that aren't very hopeful.

Death is always in the background, and memories are used as a way to keep from forgetting the past. The poems urge people to keep historical memories alive. The revival of the Irish Renaissance is a social analysis of a violent and poetic time of conflict. The texture of the poems changes all the time to show how intense the conflict was.

Seamus Heaney's job is more than just writing poetry. As a playwright, he wrote a couple of plays with Greek themes based on the plays by Sophocles. As a translator, he is known not only for his famous translation of the long medieval poem Beowulf but also for his translations of medieval Irish poems. Heaney tried to save the identity of the Irish people as a whole by spreading Celtic themes around the world, but he did it in his voice.

Death is a recurring theme in Seamus Heaney's work because it is a natural part of his environment and a result of the clashes of conflict. This is the poet who never forgets anything and never really loses anything. The life and work of this Irish poet, whose writings show how important it is to remember things to deal with the real world.

Two poems by Seamus Heaney

From Glamore's sonnets

A rat runs along the window
As over a bush an infested fruit.
" It looked at me, it watched me. I saw no visions,
Go look for yourself." Is this why
have we come to these wastelands?
We have a laurel tree by the door,
classic, and with whiffs of silage
from a neighboring farm, and sour leaves.
Blood on the pitchfork, blood on the hay
of rats skewered in the threshing.
What defense shall I make of poetry?
The bush, empty, is hissing
when I come down, and in there, your countenance
haunts like the moon in broken glass.


Between thumb and forefinger
the quill pen rests
as comfortable as a weapon.

Under the window, a limpid scraping noise:
the shovel sinking into the gravelly ground.
my father, digging. I lower my gaze:

strains his backside between the stonecutters
bending down. He stands twenty years
at a good pace, bending down in the potato pits
where he was digging.

The coarse spoil rested on the rim, the cape
firmly wielded against the knee
uprooted rootlets plunged the shining blade deep into the deep
scattering new potatoes that we gathered
loving the fresh hardness in our hands.

My God, this man could handle a shovel
as well as his father.

My grandfather cut more loaves of land in a day than any other
than anyone else in the Toner mobs.
I once brought him a bottle of milk
capped just like that, with paper. He straightened up
cutting the slices neatly, lifting clods of earth over his shoulder, going
over his shoulder, going deep, deeper and deeper, deeper and deeper
in search of better soil. Always digging. Digging and shoveling.

The fresh smell of potato shapes,
of the doughy earth, short-cutting edges
among living roots awake in my mind.

But I have no shovel
to follow men like those.

Between thumb and forefinger
the small pen rests
I will dig with it.

Sources: UNAM RADIO Rubrica No.54, Authors: María Arguedas Huel and Liliana Pérez.