This Week in History: Seamus Heaney

IMG_1774For this week’s This Week in History, we honor the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.


“The Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney was widely recognized as a major poet of the twentieth century. A native of Northern Ireland and son of a cattle farmer, and a man who once divided his time between his Dublin home and a teaching position at Harvard University, Heaney has attracted a readership on several continents and has won prestigious literary awards in England, Ireland, and the United States. As Blake Morrison noted 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. New York Review of Books essayist Richard Murphy described Heaney as ‘the poet who has shown the finest art in presenting a coherent vision of Ireland, past and present.’ Heaney’s poetry was described by Robert Buttel in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography as ‘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.’

“Inevitably, Heaney has been compared with Irish poet William Butler Yeats; in fact, several critics called Heaney the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. Heaney 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, Belfast–was a pivotal experience for the poet, who 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. Searching his cultural roots, but also letting his 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,” according to Robert Buttel in his book Seamus Heaney.

“Heaney’s sort of poetry, Buttel continued, 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 toward 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–are particularly detailed in their evocation of rural life. 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 life force through earthly things. Buttel wrote 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.’”

Source Citation   (MLA 7th Edition)

“Seamus Heaney.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2013. Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000043859


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