Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, passed away on Friday at a hospital in Dublin at the age of 74. According to the BBC, he had "recently suffered from ill health," while his family said in a statement that he died "after a short illness."
Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, on a farm in County Derry. According to his Nobel biography
the poet has commented on the fact that his parentage...contains both the Ireland of the cattle-herding Gaelic past and the Ulster of the Industrial Revolution; indeed, he considers this to have been a significant tension in his background, something which corresponds to another inner tension also inherited from his parents, namely that between speech and silence.
Heaney left for Belfast in 1957 to study literature at the Queen's University. He published his first widely-read book of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966, with Faber and Faber, which remains his publisher.
The much-praised collection contains poems that remain among some of Heaney's most beloved, such as "Mid-term break" (about his brother's death) and "Digging." In the latter, he writes:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Here, also, were established the themes that would occupy much of Heaney's career: nature, Ireland, history, and death.
North (1975) addressed the Irish struggle for independence, though it did so though a treatment of the "thick-witted couplings and revenges" of history. Four years later, he published Field Work, which The New York Times called "superb," noting that
He is not a man to worry about the precise relation between nature and culture; it is enough for him if they seem continuous, so that the analogies can go both ways. He takes pleasure, as in "The Guttural Muse," in showing how both worlds meet.
Two years later, he started teaching at Harvard University, which he would do until 2006, while spending the rest of his time in Dublin. In 1989, he also became a professor of poetry at Oxford.
When, in 1995, Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he became the first Irish writer to win the award since Samuel Beckett in 1969. It is W.B. Yeats, however, who had won the same in 1923, to whom Heaney is more often compared. His citation for the Nobel commended him "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."
But nothing arguably made Heaney quite as famous as his 1999 translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which Heaney rendered into muscular yet artful modern English:
Time and again foul things attacked me,
lurking and stalking, but I lashed out,
gave as good as I got with my sword.
My flesh was not for feasting on
The book was a surprising success, earning that rare blend of critical praise and public interest. Terry Eagleton wrote that Heaney was "an artist so exquisitely gifted and imaginatively capacious that only a work of such mighty scale would answer to his abilities." The translation earned the coveted Whitbread Prize while managing to climb the bestseller lists.
But Heaney was not always looking into the past. In 2003, he praised the Detroit rapper Eminem for his "verbal energy." Meanwhile, his 2004 play Burial at Thebes was widely seen as a criticism of the hawkish Bush administration.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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