The poetry of Seamus Justin Heaney (born 1939) reveals his skill with language and his command of form and technique. In his poems, Heaney balances personal, topical, and universal themes. He approaches his themes from a modest perspective, creating depth of meaning and insight while remaining accessible to a wide audience.
Seamus Justin Heaney's attempts to develop poetic language in which meaning and sound are intimately related result in concentrated, sensually evocative poems characterized by assonant phrasing, richly descriptive adjectives, and witty metaphors. Critics note that Heaney is concerned with many of contemporary Northern Ireland's social and cultural divisions. For example, Irish and Gaelic colloquialisms are often intermingled with more direct and straightforward English words for a language that is both resonant and controlled. Viewing the art of poetry as a craft, Heaney stresses the importance of technique as a means to channel creative energies toward sophisticated metaphysical probings. He explores a wide range of subjects in his poems, including such topics as nature, love, the relationship between contemporary issues and historical patterns, and legend and myth. Although some critics debate Robert Lowell's assessment of him as "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats," they agree that Heaney is a poet of consistent achievement. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.
Born April 13, 1939, Heaney's childhood in a rural area near Ulster, Northern Ireland, informs much of his poetry, including his first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), for which he won immediate popular and critical success. In most of these poems, Heaney describes a young man's responses to beautiful and threatening aspects of nature. In "Digging," the poem which opens this volume, he evokes the rural landscape where he was raised and comments on the care and skill with which his father and ancestors farmed the land. Heaney announces that as a poet he will metaphorically "dig" with his pen. In many of the poems in his next volume, Door into the Dark (1969), he probes beneath the surface of things to search for hidden meaning. Along with pastoral poems, Heaney focuses on rural laborers and the craftsmanship they display in their work.
Heaney left Northern Ireland when the "troubles" resumed in 1969. After teaching in the United States, he settled with his family in the Republic of Ireland. The poems in Wintering Out (1972) reveal a gradual shift from personal to public themes. Heaney begins to address the social unrest in Northern Ireland by taking the stance of commentator rather than participant. After having read P. V. Glob's The Bog People, an account of the discovery of well-preserved, centuries-old bodies found in Danish bogs, Heaney wrote a series of poems about Irish bogs. Some of the bodies found in Danish bogs are believed to have been victims of primitive sacrificial rituals, and in Wintering Out Heaney projects a historical pattern of violence that unites the ancient victims with those who have died in contemporary troubles. In North (1975), which some consider his finest collection, Heaney continues to use history and myth to pattern the universality of violence. The poems in this volume reflect his attempt to tighten his lyrics with more concrete language and images.
The poems in Field Work (1979) concern a wide range of subjects. Critics praised several love poems dealing with marriage, particularly "The Harvest Bow," which Harold Bloom called "a perfect lyric." In the ten-poem sequence "The Glanmore Sonnets," Heaney describes a lush landscape and muses on such universal themes as love and mortality, ultimately finding order, meaning, and renewal in art. Other books of significance by Heaney include Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (1980) and Sweeney Astray (1984). The former, which includes prose pieces on the origins and development of his poetry as well as essays on other poets, lends insight into Heaney's poetics. Sweeney Astray, a story-poem based on the ancient Irish tale Buile Suibhne, relates the adventures of Suibhne, or Sweeney, as he is transformed from a warrior-king into a bird because of a curse. The narrative follows Sweeney's exile from humanity and his wanderings and hardships as a bird, mixing prose descriptions of events with lyrical renderings of Sweeney's ravings as he responds to the harshness and beauty of nature.
Heaney's next volume of poetry, Station Island (1984), is made up of three sections. The opening part consists of lyrical poems about events in everyday life. The title sequence, which comprises the second section, is based on a three-day pilgrimage undertaken by Irish Catholics to Station Island, where they seek spiritual renewal. While on Station Island, Heaney ruminates on personal and historical events and encounters the souls of dead acquaintances and Irish literary figures who inspire him to reflect upon his life and art. In the third section, "Sweeney Redivivus," Heaney takes on the persona of Sweeney, attempting to recreate Sweeney's highly sensitized vision of life. Although critics debated the success of the three individual sections, most agreed that Station Island is an accomplished work that displays the range of Heaney's talents.
Further Reading on Seamus Justin Heaney
Abse, Dannie, editor, Best of the Poetry Year 6, Robson, 1979.
Begley, Monie, Rambles in Ireland, Devin-Adair, 1977.
Broadbridge, Edward, editor, Seamus Heaney, Danmarks Radio (Copenhagen), 1977.
Brown, Terence, Northern Voices: Poets from Ulster, Rowman & Littlefield, 1975.
Buttel, Robert, Seamus Heaney, Bucknell University Press, 1975.
Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography: Contemporary Writers, 1960 to the Present, Gale, 1992.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 14, 1980, Volume 25, 1983, Volume 37, 1986.