Irish poet, ‘Beowulf’ translator Seamus Heaney dies

Writings captured the transcendent power and darkness of his homeland

The Washington Post

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet whose verse captured the transcendent power, darkness and humanity of his conflicted homeland, died Friday at a hospital in Dublin. He was 74.

In accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, Heaney acknowledged another Irish Nobel laureate, William Butler Yeats, and the power of Yeats’ verse to define an Ireland beyond the violence of its independence almost a century ago. Heaney came to give voice to another period of violent upheaval that defined his native province of Ulster for much of his 50-year writing career.

The poet Robert Lowell called Heaney the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. The poet Paul Muldoon, a student of Heaney’s in the 1960s, said his mentor was “actually the most popular Irish poet ever,” although Heaney would have been indifferent to such ranking.

In 1999, Heaney’s acclaimed translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf” became an international best-seller.

Muldoon, a professor at Princeton and the New Yorker’s poetry editor, said he spoke to Heaney last week, who told him he was too ill to attend an event in England that the two were planning in September. Heaney was in failing health since a stroke in 2006.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny said in a statement that “there are no words to describe adequately our nation’s and poetry’s grief at the passing of Seamus Heaney.”

Seamus Justin Heaney was born April 13, 1939, into a Catholic farming family in rural County Derry in Northern Ireland. There seemed no preordination of his literary success. His father kept and traded cattle; his mother raised nine children, of which Seamus was the oldest, in a small thatched cottage. It was a world where a lad was measured by farming skills, including the knack for slicing peat for drying and burning. He examined this paradox in his breakthrough poem of the mid-1960s, “Digging”: “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them. / Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.”

Heaney spoke and wrote freely of the link between his life and his art and demonstrated an extraordinary power of observation and recall.

In addressing the Swedish Academy in 1995, he spoke of how his farmhouse became a sanctuary against a world at war (American troops were amassing near his hometown), and how he could at once hear the family workhorse on the other side of the bedroom wall and the muffled voices of his elders elsewhere. The radio, with its disembodied voices in different accents, fed his innate interest in language and the spoken word.

When he would explore the fields, he logged other sensations that later provided color and metaphor for his verse and prose. He wrote of playing in the hollow of an old tree “and if you put your forehead to the rough pith you felt the whole lithe and whispering crown of willow moving in the sky above you. In that tight cleft, you sensed the embrace of light and branches, you were a little Atlas shouldering it all.”

Muldoon said that “what makes him a great poet is his really uncanny ability to give back the physical world in ways whereby you see things as if for the first time.”

When Heaney was 11, he won a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school in the city of Derry, also called Londonderry, and spent six years there. One classmate was John Hume, the future Northern Irish political leader, who also won a Nobel Prize (for peace). At Queen’s University, Belfast, he excelled in English literature and published his first poems, in 1959, in the student magazine. After teaching in a Belfast school, he returned to Queens as a lecturer. He married Marie Devlin in 1965. The following year, his first major collection of poems — “Death of a Naturalist” — was published by Faber and Faber to immediate critical acclaim.

His star was rising, but so was sectarian strife in Northern Ireland between nationalists and loyalists, pitting the Catholic minority against the Protestant majority.

Heaney was wary of becoming a mouthpiece for the Republican movement and was accused on the other side of being a “Papist” propagandist. With a young family in a volatile city where people were being murdered for their religion, he moved to Wicklow, near Dublin, in the Irish Republic. When he addressed “the Troubles” in his poems, he did so obliquely and cautiously.

In 1975, he published “North,” a collection that included the poem, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” a reference to the perils of declaring one’s religion in Northern Ireland to inquiring strangers. He also wrote poems that ostensibly spoke of ancient outcasts whose remains were found in Scandinavian bogs, but the verse was an allegory for the way the Irish Republican Army would tar and feather Catholic women who fraternized with British soldiers. “You were flaxen-haired, / undernourished, and your tar-black face was beautiful. / My poor scapegoat.”

Heaney saw the first six years of the Troubles as an understandable movement for civil rights but the two decades after it as a soul-destroying period of sectarian violence and retaliation in which “people settled into a quarter-century of life-waste and spirit-waste.”

During that period, from the mid-1970s until the 1990s, Heaney had seen his work and reputation grow. He was no longer an important Irish poet, but a writer with an international reputation. In 1982, he began teaching a semester at Harvard University and later became its prestigious Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory. In 1989, he also became the professor of poetry at Oxford University.

Heaney had a long face, narrow eyes, and a shock of white hair. “The wildest thing about Seamus was the hair,” said Muldoon.

In Heaney’s masterful translation of “Beowulf,” Muldoon sees a gentle rebuke. “Beowulf” is regarded as the first published English story, and Heaney infused it with a Celtic sensibility. “For centuries, Irish writers have been co-opted by the English tradition; in this case Seamus was co-opting what was seen as the founding text in the English tradition and making it Irish.”