"I have always thought of poems as stepping stones in one's own sense of oneself. Every now and again, you write a poem that gives you self-respect and steadies your going a little bit farther out in the stream. At the same time, you have to conjure the next stepping stone because the stream, we hope, keeps flowing."
-Seamus Heaney (All Things Considered, 2008)
Yesterday legendary poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney passed away in Dublin after a brief illness. He was 74 years old. Often lauded as the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats, Heaney contributed to a wide range of genres, not only composing poetry, but also translating great literature and writing literary criticism.
Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 in Castledawson, County Derry, Northern Ireland. His upbringing there, especially as a Catholic in a Protestant area, would profoundly affect his work as a poet. He noted in an interview with New York Times Book Review that he felt as though he had "emerged from a hidden, buried life and entered the realm of education" when he left for university. Heaney earned his teacher's certificate at St. Joseph's College in Belfast and took a position there as a lecturer in English in 1963. It was here that he began writing. He soon joined a poetry workshop led by Philip Hobsbaum; among the participants were Derek Mahon and Michael Longsley. Three years later Heaney published his first poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist.
Over the next four decades, Heaney would go on to publish several more volumes of poetry and set himself apart as a regional poet who captured both beauty, tradition, and zeitgeist of Northern Ireland. He often addressed the "Troubles" of Northern Ireland; the political strife of his young adulthood often plays a central role in his work. But it was Heaney's sonorous and subtlely textured language that won him adulation from readers around the world. Heaney was a traditionalist, often paying homage to legendary poets like John Clare and William Wordsworth--poets whose works seem incongruous with those of such a modern poet like Heaney, but to whom modern poets are still indebted.
In 1976, Heaney moved to Dublin, where he resided until this year. In 1981, he started spending half of each year teaching at Harvard University. He was elected Boyleston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory three years later. He held the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994 and was named a Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."
Heaney made headlines in 2000 with his new translation of Beowulf. The epic poem is considered one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature, but its archaic language has often hindered contemporary appreciation. Heaney sought to revitalize the work for a new audience, and he took liberties with the language to make it clear and modern--while maintaining its beauty. Though Beowulf was not Heaney's first translation, it's certainly his most famous.
Heaney will certainly remain a central figure in the poetry of Ireland and indeed the world. Hearing him read his poetry is a unique joy unto itself, as you'll find if you listen to his reading of "Digging," below: