Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning poet whose crystalline, descriptive verse led many to consider him the best Irish poet since Yeats, died Thursday. He was 74. — Henry Chu


great Irish poet Seamus Heaney      1939-2013




His death was confirmed by his publishers, Faber and Faber, which said that it could not “adequately express our profound sorrow at the

loss of one of the world’s greatest writers. His impact on literary culture is immeasurable.”

The publishing house said in a statement issued on behalf of his family that Heaney died in a Dublin hospital after a short illness.

The white-haired writer was praised for evocative poems that frequently reflected his Irish upbringing and addressed the “Troubles,” the bloody conflict in his native Northern Ireland.


His works were often meditations on the intersection of personal choice and loss with the larger forces of history and politics.


Well-known volumes included “Wintering Out,” “Station Island,” “The Spirit Level,” “District and Circle” and a lyrical translation of the epic poem “Beowulf.”

Heaney taught for many years at Harvard. After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, he made speaking appearances around the world, delighting audiences with a disarming, gentle wit.

“The platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air,” Heaney said in his Nobel acceptance speech in Stockholm. “I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible.”

He suffered a stroke several years ago, which he later described as a terrifying experience.

“Yes, I cried. I cried, and I wanted my daddy, funnily enough. I did. I felt babyish,” he said.

Among his fans was President Clinton, who visited him during his convalescence and also named his dog Seamus.

Heaney is survived by his wife, Marie, and three children.





In an address, President Michael D. Higgins of Ireland, himself a poet, praised Mr. Heaney’s “contribution to the republics of letters, conscience and humanity.” Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, said that Mr. Heaney’s death had brought

“great sorrow to Ireland, to language and to literature.”


A Roman Catholic native of Northern Ireland, Mr. Heaney was renowned for work that powerfully evoked the beauty and blood that together have come to define the modern Irish condition. The author of more than a dozen collections of poetry, as well as critical essays and works for the stage, he repeatedly explored the strife and uncertainties that have afflicted his homeland, while managing simultaneously to steer clear of polemic.

Mr. Heaney (pronounced HEE-nee), who had made his home in Dublin since the 1970s, was known to a wide public for the profuse white hair and stentorian voice that befit his calling. He held lectureships at some of the world’s foremost universities, including Harvard, where, starting in the 1980s, he taught regularly for many years; Oxford; and the University of California, Berkeley.

As the trade magazine Publishers Weekly observed in 1995, Mr. Heaney “has an aura, if not a star power, shared by few contemporary poets, emanating as much from his leonine features and unpompous sense of civic responsibility as from the immediate accessibility of his lines.”


Throughout his work, Mr. Heaney was consumed with morality. In his hands, a peat bog is not merely an emblematic feature of the Irish landscape; it is also a spiritual quagmire, evoking the deep ethical conundrums that have long pervaded the place.


“Yeats, despite being quite well known, despite his public role, actually didn’t have anything like the celebrity or, frankly, the ability to touch the people in the way that Seamus did,” Mr. Muldoon, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the poetry editor at The New Yorker, said in an interview on Friday. “It was almost like he was indistinguishable from the country. He was like a rock star who also happened to be a poet.”


Mr. Heaney was enraptured, as he once put it, by “words as bearers of history and mystery.”


His poetry, which had an epiphanic quality, was suffused with references to pre-Christian myth — Celtic, of course, but also that of ancient Greece. His style, linguistically dazzling, was nonetheless lacking in the obscurity that can attend poetic pyrotechnics.

At its best, Mr. Heaney’s work had both a meditative lyricism and an airy velocity. His lines could embody a dark marshy melancholy, but as often as not they also communicated the wild onrushing joy of being alive.

The result — work that was finely wrought yet notably straightforward — made Mr. Heaney one of the most widely read poets in the world.

Reviewing Mr. Heaney’s collection “North” in The New York Review of Books in 1976, the Irish poet Richard Murphy wrote: “His original power, which even the sternest critics bow to with respect, is that he can give you the feeling as you read his poems that you are actually doing what they describe. His words not only mean what they say, they sound like their meaning.”

Mr. Heaney made his reputation with his debut volume, “Death of a Naturalist,” published in 1966. In “Digging,” a poem from the collection, he explored the earthy roots of his art:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

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.

Though Mr. Heaney’s poems often have pastoral settings, dewy rural romanticism is notably absent:

instead, he depicts country life in all its harsh daily reality.   His poem “A Drink of Water” opens this way:

She came every morning to draw water

Like an old bat staggering up the field:

The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter

And slow diminuendo as it filled,

Announced her. I recall

Her grey apron, the pocked white enamel

Of the brimming bucket, and the treble

Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.

Mr. Heaney was deeply self-identified as Irish, and much of his work overtly concerned the Troubles, as the long, violent sectarian conflict in late-20th-century Northern Ireland is known.






In an overwhelmingly conceptual era, in which nearly all the arts are dominated by precious young geniuses showing off their technical virtuosity and theoretical sophistication, Seamus Heaney was a great experimental old master, concerned with the aesthetic qualities and the truth of his art. His greatness did not burst forth fully formed in his earliest work, but grew over time as his art evolved into maturity and wisdom. In a series of interviews with Dennis O’Driscoll, late in his life, Heaney expressed his philosophy of poetry in discussing his own work and that of his predecessors and peers.

Portrait of Seamus Heaney, by Tai-Shan Schierenberg (2004). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Heaney did not admire verbal pyrotechnics, but wanted to make poetry from language that he heard spoken around him:

Other poets broach the dictionary hoard, and get great energy and exhibition from doing so, but for me the point about dialect or hearth language is its complete propriety to the speaker and his or her voice and place. What justifies it and gives it original juice and joy is intimacy and inevitability. I’ve always confined myself to words I myself could have heard spoken, words I’d be able to use with familiarity in certain companies.

He did not believe poems could be deliberately planned or engineered. They began by chance: “The accident factor, the surprise factor, the oops factor is important.” The poem then had to be discovered in the process of working:

The experiment of poetry, as far as I am concerned, happens when the poem carries you beyond where you could have reasonably expected to go. The image I have is from the old cartoons: Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse coming hell for leather to the edge of a cliff, skidding to a stop but unable to halt, and shooting over the edge. A good poem is the same, it goes that bit further and leaves you walking on air.

Making art was not like making cookies:

“Form is not like a pastry cutter – the dough has to move and discover its own shape.” The subject of a poem was not merely an excuse for a technical exercise, for poems had to be about something: “I can’t conceive of a poetry that hasn’t a subject to deal with.”

At a time when it was fashionable to dismiss Robert Frost as an old-fashioned writer of poems for schoolchildren, Heaney was unapologetic in his praise for Frost’s art:

I felt at home in the world of his poetry – the New England farm world, the people, the idiom that was used. I now realize that Frost is a highly literary poet but he allows the world as it is to have its say…I liked his sense of “this-worldness,” the subject matter, the dead-on and head-on-ness…I came to appreciate more and more the sophistication of his art, what he made of what he was given…[T]here’s a seriousness, an inner core of high, hard intelligence, in Frost.

Robert Frost (1951). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Much in the way that Heaney admired Frost for his experimental qualities, his favorite modern painter was another great experimental old master, Cézanne:

Sitting there sur le motif, his grumpy contrary old back turned on us as he faces the lumpy countervailing mountain…What I love is the doggedness, the courage to face the job, the generation of what Hopkins would have called “self-yeast”… This may or may not be the Cézanne known to the art critics and historians, but he’s the one I’ve lived with, the one rewarded with those incontrovertible paintings, so steady in themselves they steady you and the world – and you in the world.

Paul Cézanne, Self Portrait with Beret (ca. 1900). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As an experimental artist who believed art should seek to make serious statements about the external world, Heaney regretted the artificial and conceptual orientation of contemporary poetry:

The main disadvantage of being a poet anywhere at the minute is that there is no strong sense of a critical response which has lived and loved that which it is responding to. Reviewing has turned into something more piecemeal and, in the main, lightweight. What I depend upon are friends who know poetry well and who can quote from it, people for whom poetry is a value lived for and lived out.

Seamus Heaney was a seeker: in his Nobel acceptance speech, he spoke of his “journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life – turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination.” In a conceptual era, he rejected the idea that art was artifice, and made an experimental art that was not only about the reality of life, but was made directly from that reality.

Seamus Heaney (1996). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

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One Response to Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning poet whose crystalline, descriptive verse led many to consider him the best Irish poet since Yeats, died Thursday. He was 74. — Henry Chu

  1. Pingback: In a tribute delivered from the pulpit, one of Heaney’s three children revealed his final words: a text message from his hospital bed to his wife, Marie. Michael Heaney said the words, “written a few minutes before he passed away, were in his

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