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Seamus (Justin) Heaney (1939-2013)


Irish poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. According to Seamus Heaney, poetry balances the "scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium." From the early collections, Heaney combined in his work personal memories with images of Irish heritage and the landscape of Northern Ireland. There is also references to English-Irish and Catholic-Protestant conflict. However, Heaney's view was much more visionary and allegorical than bound to contemporary issues.

"Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art." (from Nobel Lecture, 1995)

Seamus Heaney was born near Castledawson, County Derry, and grew up on his father's cattle farm. He was the eldest in a Catholic family of nine children. Heaney attended St. Columb's College, Derry, and moved in 1957 to Belfast to continue his studies. In 1961 Heaney graduated from Queen's University, Belfast, and was then trained as teacher at St. Joseph's College of Education. After one year as a secondary school teacher, Heaney returned to St. Josephs, where he was a lecturer for three years. In 1966 he became a lecturer at Queen University.

Much of Heaney's early work informed the everyday life of his childhood, from digging potatoes to cutting turf. His first book, Eleven Poems, came out in 1965. At the age of 27 he won in 1966 the Eric Gregory Award with Death of a Naturalist. With these works Heaney established his reputation as a poet. In 1969, Heaney was in Belfast at the outbreakof what has become known as 'The Troubles'.

In 1965 Heaney married Marie Devlin, a teacher. When they met in 1962, Heaney lent her a copy of A. Alvarez's anthology, The New Poetry. ". . . there was a muse energy in the air all right," he later said in an interview. "Marie and I were very much the typical young marrieds of that period, with our teak furniture and our second-hand Volkswagen. . . . " (Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll, 2010) Heaney's second book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), published by Faber, was dedicated to Marie.

Serious disturbances from Protestant political dominance arouse in 1968-69. In employment and housing there were discrimination against the Roman Catholic minority. Catholic students arranged civil rights marches, that had much similarities with protest movements in elsewhere in Europe and in the United States. British troops were sent to restore peace in Belfast and Londonderry. Heaney left Belfats at the height of this conflict.

Although Heaney was not an enrolled member of the Civil Rights movement, he knew and met several of its prominent members, including Dr Conn McCluskey, Mrs. Patricia McCluskey, and Austin Currie. In 1972 Heaney gave up his work at Queen's and  moved with his family to County Wicklow. From 1976 he lived in Sandymouth, in Dublin.

Until 1981, Heaney taught at Carysfort College of Education. After spending frequent periods as a guest professor at American universities, Heaney was appointed visiting professor at Harvard. Since 1985, he served there as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Between the years 1989 and 1994 he held Professorship of Poetry at Oxford. Heaney was expected to deliver three public lectures each year; ten of the fifteen he gave were he collected in The Redress of Poetry (1995). In 1997 he was appointed Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence at Harvard. Always very aware of his role as an outsider, Heaney was reluctant to make critical comments on the American life and culture: "A visitor, / Part tourist and part faculty, / An ethnic curiosity." ('Anniversary Address' for Adams House at Harvard, Anything Can Happen: A Poem and Essay, 2004)

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighting stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

(from 'Punishment' in North, 1975)

After North (1975), in which Heaney addressed the ongoing civil strife, he was considered the finest Irish poet since W.B. Yeats, and with Ted Hughes one of the leading poetic voices in the English-speaking world.

Heaney's works are rooted in Northern Irish rural life, and draw on myth and unique aspects of the Irish experience. Reflections on his childhood gave way to darker views on his homeland. The Government of the Tongue (1988) questioned the role of poetry in modern society. The central symbol in is the bog, the wide unfenced county, that reaches back millions of years. It is the starting point for the exploraton of the past. In several works Heaney talked about the "bog people," bodies preserved in the soil of Denmark and Ireland, as in 'Punishment' in North. It depicts a tribal revenge of adultery, and sinks into powerlessness in front of ancient, violent forces:  "I who have stood dumb / when your betraying sisters, / cauled in tar, / wept by the railings, / who would connive / in civilized outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge".

The political situation in Northern Ireland that divided the country was dealt in Field Work (1979) from the standpoint of Heaney's Catholic background. Heaney was consistent in his refusal to reduce complex political and social issues to simple slogans. When the editors of The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry included him in their collection, he made explicit his desire not to be called a "British" poet: "Be advised! My passport's green. / No glass of ours was ever raised! To toast The Queen". Heaney explained in his lecture 'Frontiers of Writing' (1995) that he wrote about the color of the passport "to maintain the right to diversity within the border" and suggested that the majority in Northern Ireland should make an effort in two-mindeness.

Strong individualistic, meditative mood, marks Heaney's later works, including Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987), and Seeing Things (1991). The Haw Lantern contains poems in memory of Heaney's mother, who died in 1984. In Electric Light (2001) Heaney's childhood memories combine the sense of fleeting time and death: "The room I came from and the rest of us all came from / Stays pure reality where I stand alone, / Standing the passage of time, and she's asleep / In sheets put on for the doctor, wedding presents / That showed up again and again, bridal / And usual and useful at births and deaths."

Heaney's poems had often an allegorical dimension. Like Derek Walcott, and a numer of other diverse contemporary writers, he drew on the Divine Comedy of Dante. Heaney's interest in Dante dates from the 1970s; his poetry, in the context of Ireland's tragedy, has been referred as a "poetry from hell." Heaney once said that his reading of Dante "coincided with a desire to come to the whole subject of Northern Ireland by some other route." In his Nobel lecture in 1995 Heaney defended poetry "as the ship and the anchor" of our spirit within an ocean of violent, divisive world politics.

Heaney's work as translator include Sweeney Astray (1983), from the mediaeval Irish poem about an Irish king, who went mad during a battle and was turned into a bird; The Cure at Troy (1991), Heaney's rendering into English of Sophocles' Philoctetes, which took up the theme of the cure of poetry in the times of crisis, and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (1999), which was composed towards the end of the first millennium. This translation won the Whitebread Award as the best book of 1999.

In 2003 Heaney won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin. The award is the largest annual cash prize for literary criticism in the English language. Heaney's 11th collection, District and Circle (2006), won the TS Eliot prize. In 2009 he received the David Cohen prize which is awarded biennially for a lifetime's excellence in literature. Seamus Heaney died at the age of 74 on 30 August, 2013, in Dublin.

"You have won renown: you are known to all men
far and near, now and forever.
Your sway is wide as the wind's home,
as the sea around cliffs."

(from Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney)

Beowulf records the great deed of the heroic warrior Beowulf in his youth and maturity. The hero kills three monsters: a maneater called Grendel, Grendel's mother in her underwater dwelling, and 50 years later a fire-breathing dragon, which is stirred by the theft of a goblet. It mortally wounds Beowulf before expiring. The poem ends with Beowulf's funeral pyre. Central theme is the workings of fate (wyrd) in human lives. It is generally accepted that originally Beowulfwas the achievemet of a single poet, who recounted legends that were passed down orally from several centuries earlier. Heaney makes the hero's tragic stature prophetic: when he dies his people wait of the disaster that will descend on them. Also the Finnish national epic Kalevala ends in resignation with the decline of paganism, when Väinämöinen, the central character, departs the "Land of Heroes."

For further reading: Seamus Heaney's American Odyssey by Edward J. O'Shea (2023); Haunted Heaney: Spectres and the Poetry by Ian Hickey (2021); On Seamus Heaney by R.F. Foster (2020); Seamus Heaney and the End of Catholic Ireland by Kieran Quinlan (2020); Seamus Heaney and Society by Rosie Lavan (2020) "The Soul Exceeds Its Circumstances": The Later Poetry of Seamus Heaney, edited by Eugene O'Brien (2016); Seamus Heaney's Regions by Richard Rankin Russell (2014);  Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll (2010); Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity by Floyd Collins (2003); Seamus Heaney: Creating Irelands of the Mind by Eugene O'Brien (2003); Seamus Heaney: In Conversation with Karl Miller by Karl Miller and Seamus Heaney (2002); The Flight of the Vernacular: Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and the Impress of Dante by Maria Cristina Fumagalli (2001); Passage to the Center by Daniel Tobin (1999); Seamus Heaney by Helen Hennessy Vendler (1998); Passage to the Center by Daniel Tobin (1998); Critical Essays on Seamus Heaney, edited by Robert F. Garratt (1995); The Art of Seamus Heaney, edited by T. Curtis (1994); Seamus Heaney: Poet and Critic by Arthur E. McGuinness (1994); Seamus Heaney: A Reference Guide by Rand Brandes and Michael J. Durkan (1994); Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet by Michael Parker (1993); Seamus Heaney, edited by H. Bloom (1993) - Suom. Jyrki Vainonen on valikoinut ja suomentanut Seamus Heaneylta runoja kokoelmiin Ojanpiennarten kuningas (1995), Ukkosvaloa (1997) ja Soran ääniä (2007).

Selected works:

  • Eleven Poems, 1965
  • Death of a Naturalist, 1966
    - 'Kaivamassa (Digging),' 'Luonnonlapsen kuolema (Death of a Naturalist),' 'Aitta (The Barn),' etc. (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Soran ääniä: Seamus Heaneyn runoja, 2007)
  • The Island People, 1968
  • Room to Rhyme, 1968
  • Door into the Dark, 1969
    - 'Uni (Dream),' 'Lainsuojaton (The Outlaw),' 'Paja (The Forge),' etc. (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Soran ääniä: Seamus Heaneyn runoja, 2007)
  • The Last Mummer, 1969
  • A Lough Neagh Sequence, 1969 (edited by Harry Chambers and Eric J. Morten)
  • A Boy Driving His Father to Confession, 1970
  • Catherine's Poem, 1970
  • Night Drive, 1970
  • Chaplet, 1971
  • Land, 1971
  • Servant Boy, 1971
  • January God, 1972
  • Soundings:  An Annual Anthology of New Irish Poetry, 1972 (edited by Seamus Heaney)
  • Wintering Out, 1972
    - 'Maata (Land),' 'Katse taaksepäin (The Backward Look),' 'Keskiyö (Midnight),' 'Tollundin mies (The Tollund Man) (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Seamus Heaney: Ukkosvaloa, 1997); 'Anahorish,' 'Maata (Land),' 'Sateen lahjat),' etc. (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Soran ääniä: Seamus Heaneyn runoja, 2007)
  • Explorations, 1973
  • Soundings II, 1973 (edited by Seamus Heaney)
  • Bog Poems, 1975 (illustrated by Margaret McCord)
  • The Fire i' the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley, 1975
  • The Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh: From Monaghan to the Grand Canal, 1975 (in Two Decades of Irish Writing, ed. D. Dunn)
  • North, 1975
    - 'Belderig,' 'Hautajaisriittejä (Funeral Rites),' 'Pohjoinen (North),' etc. (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Soran ääniä: Seamus Heaneyn runoja, 2007)
  • Stations, 1975
  • Four Poems, 1976
  • Glanmore Sonnets, 1977
  • In Their Element: A Selection of Poems, 1977 (by Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon)
  • Robert Lowell: A Memorial Address and Elegy, 1978
  • The Poetry of Richard Murphy, 1978 (in Richard Murphy: Poet of Two Traditions, ed. M. Harman)
  • After Summer, 1978
  • Christmas Eve, 1978
  • A Family Album, 1978
  • The Makings of a Music: Reflections on the Poetry of Wordsworth and Yeats, 1978
  • Field Work, 1979
    - 'Osterit (Oysters),' 'Triptyykki (Triptych),' 'Lough Bergin rannalla (The Strand at Lough Berg),' etc. (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Soran ääniä: Seamus Heaneyn runoja, 2007)
  • Ugolino, 1979
  • Gravities: A Collection of Poetry and Drawings, 1979 (drawings by Noel Connor)
  • Hedge School: Sonnets from Glanmore, 1979 (illustrated by Claire Van Vliet)
  • Arvon Foundation Poetry Competition. 1980 Anthology, 1980 (ed., with T. Hughes)
  • Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978, 1980
  • Changes, 1980
  • Selected Poems 1965-1975, 1980
  • Toome, 1980
  • Holly, 1981
  • Sweeney Praises the Trees, 1981 (illustrated by Henry Pearson)
  • Leaving the Island, 1982 (in James Joyce and Modern Literature, eds. W. J. McCormack; Alistair Stead)
  • Chekhov on Sakhalin, 1982
  • The Rattlebag: An Anthology of Poetry, 1982 (ed., with T. Hughes)
  • A Personal Selection: August 20-October 24, 1982, 1982
  • Poems and a Memoir, 1982 (illustrated by Henry Pearson)
  • The Names of the Hare, 1982
  • Remembering Malibu, 1982 (with a linoleum block by Caril Whermann)
  • Sweeneyn and the Saint: From the Middle Irish, 1982
  • Verses for a Fordham Commencement, 1982
  • A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann, 1983
  • Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish, 1983 (translator)
  • An Open Letter, 1983
  • Among Schoolchildren: In Memory of John M. Malone, 1983
  • Hailstones, 1984
  • I Thought of Walking Round and Round a Space…, 1984 (with a monoprint in colour by  Robert Perkins)
  • Station Island, 1984
    - 'Maanalainen (The Underground,' 'Tšehov Sahalinin saarella (Chekhov on Sakhalin),' 'Vaellus (A Migration),' etc. (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Soran ääniä: Seamus Heaneyn runoja, 2007)
  • Gravities, 1979
  • From the Republic of Conscience, 1985
  • Towards a Collaboration, 1985
  • Clearances, 1986
  • Dangerous Pavements, 1987
  • The Haw Lantern, 1987
    - 'Aakkoset (Alphabets),' 'Terminus,' 'Orapihlajalyhty (The Haw Lantern),' etc. (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Soran ääniä: Seamus Heaneyn runoja, 2007)
  • The Sound of Rain, 1988
  • Readings in Contemporary Poetry, 1988
  • The Government of the Tongue:The 1986 T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, and Other Critical Writings, 1988
  • In the Prison of His Days, 1988
  • Valedictory Verses, 1988
  • The Place of Writing, 1989
  • An Upstairs Outlook, 1989 (with M. Longley)
  • The Fire Gaze, 1989 (with a wood engraving Hellmuth Weissenborn)
  • The Redress of Poetry:An Inaugural Lecture, 1990
  • New Selected Poems 1966-1987, 1990
  • Field of Vision, 1990 (illustrated by Catherine Ann Heaney)
  • The Tree Clock, 1990
  • The Earth House, 1990 (with a wood engraving by John O’Connor)
  • Seeing Things, 1991
    - 'Mies ja poika (Man and Boy),' 'Näkyjä (Seeing Things),' 'Elokuun yö (An August Night),' etc. (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Soran ääniä: Seamus Heaneyn runoja, 2007)
  • Squarings, 1991
  • The Cure at Troy, 1991 (from Sophocles' play Philoctetes)
  • The Air Station, 1992 (with a wood engraving by Miriam Macgregor)
  • The Gravel Walks, 1992
  • Dylan the Durable, 1992
  • An Invocation, 1992
  • Sweeney's Flight, 1992 (translator; photographs by Rachel Giese)
  • The May Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge Poetry, 1993 (ed.)
  • Joy or Night: Last Things in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats and Philip Larkin, 1993
  • Keeping Going, 1993 (illustrated by Dimitri Hadzi)
  • The Midnight Verdict, 1993 (translator; from B. Merriman and Ovid)
  • Extending the Alphabet, 1994
  • Look Far, Cast…, 1994 (translator)
  • Speranza in Reading:  On "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", 1994
  • The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, 1995
  • Clay Pipes / Cathal ó Searcaigh, 1995 (translator)
  • Laments, a Cycle of Polish Renaissance Elegies / Jan Kochanowski, 1995 (translator, with Stanisław Barańczak)
  • Jesus and the Sparrows, 1996 (with a woodcut by Timothy Engelland)
  • Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture, 1996
  • I Am Raftery / Antoine Raftery, 1996 (translator)
  • The Spirit Level, 1996 (Whitbread Award 1997)
    - 'Birgitan silmukka (A Brigid's Girdle),' 'Nelikymmenluvun sohva (A Sofa in the Forties),' 'Kaksi kuormuria (Two Lorries),' etc. (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Soran ääniä: Seamus Heaneyn runoja, 2007)
  • Poet to Blacksmith, 1997
  • Audenesque, 1998
  • Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996, 1998
  • The Light of the Leaves, 1999
  • Beowulf, 1999 (translator; Whitbread Award in January 2000)
    - The first verse translation of Beowulf into Finnish, made by Osmo Pekonen (1960-2022) and Phil. D. Clive Tolley, came out in 1999. Pekonen's translation of the Nibelungenlied (Nibelungeinlaulu, 2023), sometimes called the "German Iliad," is a masterpiece of the modern Finnish translation.
  • Diary of One Who Vanished; A Song Cycle by Leoš Janáček of Poems by Ozef Kalda, 1999 (translator)
  • Electric Light, 2001
    - 'Toomebridgessa (At Toomebrodge),' 'Ahvenia (Perch),' 'Taikalaukku (Out of the Bag),' etc. (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Soran ääniä: Seamus Heaneyn runoja, 2007)
  • Something to Write Home About, 2001
  • Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971–2001, 2002
  • Hope and History, 2002
  • Ecologues in Extremis, 2002
  • Arion / Alexander Pushkin, 2002 (translator)
  • A Keen for the Coins, 2002
  • Squarings, 2003
  • The Burial at Thebes, 2004 (A Version of Sophocles's "Antigone")
  • Anything Can Happen: A Poem and Essay, 2004
  • The Door Stands Open, 2005
  • A Shiver, 2005
  • District and Circle, 2006 (TS Eliot Prize for Poetry)
    - 'Värinä (A Shiver),' 'Anahorish 1944,' 'Nipsaisu (A Clip),' etc. (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, teoksessa Soran ääniä: Seamus Heaneyn runoja, 2007)
  • The Riverbank Field, 2007
  • Articulations: Poetry, Philosophy and the Shaping of Culture, 2008 (with Jane Conroy, Patrick Masterson, and Paul Muldoon
  • Spelling It Out: In Honour of Brian Friel on His 80th Birthday, 2009
  • Human Chain: Poems, 2010
  • Selected Poems 1966-1987, 2014
  • New Selected Poems: 1988-2013
  • Aeneid Book VI: A New Verse Translation / Virgil, 2016 (translator)
  • 100  Poems, 2019
  • The Translations of Seamus Heaney, 2023 (edited by Marco Sonzogni)
  • The Letters of Seamus Heaney, 2023 (edited by Christopher Reid)

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