Seamus Heaney - Biography and Works

Seamus Heaney is an Irish poet who won the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature. Heaney was born in a small agricultural town in Mossbawn, County Derry, Northern Ireland to a Catholic farmer and his wife. In 1957 he went to Belfast to study literature at Queen's University, where he returned as a lecturer in 1965.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

Troubled by the continuing violence between the Roman Catholics and Protestants, Heaney moved to the Republic of Ireland in 1972. He now lives in Dublin. He taught at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and at the University of Oxford, in England.

Heaney’s poetry, beginning with Death of a Naturalist (1966) is rooted in the physical, rural surroundings of his childhood in Northern Ireland. Heaney’s poems are often short, punctuated by the intensity of his language. His powerful words contrast sharply with the silence of the people he describes. Heaney’s modern English translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf reached best-seller lists in the United States and the United Kingdom in the spring of 2000. In addition to poetry, Heaney has written wide-ranging criticisms and has published his lectures on poetry.

Heaney belongs to what is called the Belfast Group of the seventies when Northern Ireland experienced a literary Renaissance that has drawn energy and public attention both from the protracted troubles and from the worldwide distinction achieved by the region’s most distinguished writers, Nobel Prize –winning poet Seamus Heaney. Like him, many Northern Irish poets, dramatists and writers achieved distinction in Dublin and London, as well as internationally in and since the seventies. Belfast, a provincial center of heavy industry, lacked serious standing in the arts in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The annual Belfast Festival begun in the early 1960s is now a major cultural event.

Heaney is widely regarded as the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. As the titles of his books suggest, the dominant sources of his poetic language are landscape and the figures of an archaic rural Irish culture. Heaney addressed Northern Ireland’s troubles directly. The “bog poems”, place such conflict metaphorically within the context of northern European mythologies of human sacrifice and retribution. Heaney likens the prehistoric corpses recovered from Scandinavian bogs to the victims of protestant catholic strife in Northern Ireland. These bog poems explore victims of pagan rites and punishments. They are described with all the graphic exactitude characteristic of Heaney’s style. 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 in “Punishment”. The poet pictures himself as a bystander while a bog sacrifice was led, to her execration. “To be a signpost is to be silent in recognition of the demands of the tribe, as Heaney calls it, but still the signpost carries its message.

Heaney is a famous poet who is known for “taking ingredients form history as well as biography.” He says that poetry is the blending of history and biography of music. So to understand his poetry we have to refer to nationality, ancestry, political events and so on. Heaney’s best known poems are related to the atrocities and tyranny that have always been there in human societies in the past and present, and will be there in the future too. He brings together history and traces the roots of present day cruelty. He seems the history of Ireland as a history of cruelty.

Heaney’s early poems are closely tied to the elemental rhythms of rural life and show the influence of W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Ted Hughes, and Patrick Kavanagh. Memory and history are recurring themes, and he depicts the Irish peat bog as a “memory bank”, a record of the country and its people from primordial times. The strict pentameters of his early work have given way to looser forms, but his more recent work continues to present his keen insights and vivid observations in straightforward language.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "Seamus Heaney - Biography and Works." BachelorandMaster, 18 Nov. 2013,

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