Heaney, Seamus Justin (1939–2013), poet, critic and translator, was born on 13 April 1939 on a farm called Mossbawn in the townland of Tamniarn near Castledawson, Co. Derry, the eldest of nine children (seven sons and two daughters) of Patrick Heaney, farmer and cattle-dealer, and his wife Margaret Kathleen (née McCann).
Early life, family and education
The family moved from Mossbawn to a farm called 'The Wood' near Bellaghy in 1953 when it was left to Patrick Heaney by his uncle with whom he had lived after the death of his parents. Patrick Heaney was a major figure in his son's writing throughout his life, more markedly after his death in October 1986; he remained a prominently mourned presence. Heaney's mother's family worked in local linen mills, rather than the farming family she married into. She died in 1984 and was mourned in the sonnet-sequence 'Clearances', one of Heaney's greatest sequences. Another important presence in the household of his childhood was his father's sister, Mary Heaney, the subject and dedicatee of the celebrated poem 'Sunlight' at the head of the volume North in 1975. The nine children were Seamus, Sheena, Ann, Hugh, Patrick, Charles, Colum, Christopher and Dan. Christopher, aged four, was killed in a road accident in 1953 – the subject of Heaney's famous early poem 'Mid-term break', and one he returned to in the late poem 'The blackbird of Glanmore'. Two moving poems were devoted to his brother Hugh who remained as a farmer, 'Keeping going' and 'Quitting time'.
Seamus attended Anahorish primary school (1944–51) which was not divided along religious lines. After passing the eleven-plus examination, he won a scholarship to St Columb's College, Derry, where he was a boarder for six years (1951–7). A contemporary of his at St Columb's was the writer Seamus Deane; the politician John Hume (who, like Heaney, was to win a Nobel prize) was two years his senior. He won a state exhibition to Queen's University Belfast (1957–61) where he got a first in English language and literature. While at Queen's he published his first poems in the student magazines Q and Gorgon, using the nom-de-plume Incertus: 'the uncertain one'. Despite being encouraged by the English department at Queen's to apply for postgraduate work at Oxford, he did a teaching diploma at St Joseph's College of Education, Andersonstown, Belfast (1961–2). He was appointed to the teaching staff of St Thomas's Secondary Intermediate School in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast where he had done teaching practice during the diploma. The headmaster was the fiction writer Michael McLaverty (qv) whose encouragement Heaney always acknowledged. After one year there he returned to St Joseph's to take up a lectureship he held until 1966 when he was appointed to a lectureship back at Queen's which he held until 1972.
That lectureship had become vacant on the departure of Philip Hobsbaum to Glasgow. Hobsbaum had come to Queen's from Sheffield in 1962, and had founded a poetry workshop in Belfast, modelled on one he had run in London called 'The Group': the title he also gave to the Belfast gathering. In 1964 Hobsbaum sent some poems from the Belfast Group to the poet Edward Lucie-Smith whom he knew from the London Group. Lucie-Smith sent the poems to various London editors, including Karl Miller at the New Statesman. Miller published three poems by Heaney – 'Digging', 'Scaffolding' and 'Storm on the island' – in the same issue of the New Statesman in December 1964.
In 1965 Heaney married the teacher Marie Devlin whom he had met at St Joseph's in 1962. As Marie Heaney, she is also an important Irish writer, author amongst other things of Over nine waves: a book of Irish legends (1994), a lively retelling of stories from medieval Irish legends. She came from Ardboe, Co. Tyrone; her mother was a primary school teacher, Eileen O'Hare from Warrenpoint, Co. Down, whose family history was partly protestant huguenot, and her father, Tommy Devlin, was a merchant and farmer whose family background was partly presbyterian. He had a public house and a fish-exporting business; his eelworks feature in a number of Heaney's poems throughout his life. Marie Heaney's mixed religious inheritance was a factor in the reluctance of the Heaneys to take doctrinaire public positions. They had two sons while they lived in Belfast: Michael (born 1966) and Christopher (born 1968), and lived there until 1972, apart from a sabbatical year spent at the University of California at Berkeley in 1970–71. On their return from Berkeley, Heaney resigned his lectureship at Queen's and the family moved to Co. Wicklow, twenty miles south of Dublin where their daughter Catherine Ann was born in 1973. Although the purpose of the move was partly so that Heaney could devote himself full-time to writing, in 1976 he became head of English in Carysfort Teacher Training College in Dublin, and the family moved to nearby Sandymount. In 1981 he began a long association with Harvard University when he became a visiting professor there and where he was elected to a tenured post in 1985 as the Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory (1985–97), and the Ralph Waldo Emerson poet in residence (1998–2006).
Contexts of early writing
This account of his personal and professional life has to be seen against two backgrounds: his literary development, especially his poetry, and the increasingly troubled politics of Northern Ireland. His first book of poetry, Eleven poems, was published in 1965 by Queen's University Festival Publications, followed the next year by Death of a naturalist, commissioned by Charles Monteith at Faber, which was widely acclaimed and won several prizes. His second book with Faber, Door into the dark, was published in 1969, in which year he visited the USA for the first time, as well as France and Spain with his family to fulfil the terms of the Somerset Maugham Award which stipulated foreign travel.
Heaney's early poetry was praised for its tactile evocativeness in representing the rural world of his upbringing; he often said that Mossbawn remained the centre of his imaginative world and he used the Greek term omphalos to represent its centrality. But from the first there are darker notes in his pastoral: in the second line of the poem which begins Death of a naturalist, 'Digging', which comes first as well in all subsequent selections from his work, the pen is described as 'snug as a gun'. That first Faber volume derived from a manuscript which Heaney had sent to Dolmen Press late in 1964 under the title 'Advancements of learning'. The shift from the positive overtones of that title to foreground the psychic 'death' of the young naturalist is representative of something less optimistic in his poems about the process of learning (the poem which provides the book's title was originally published as 'End of a naturalist'). Door into the dark drew on observation of nature and locality in the same way, but the dark notes were now more prominent: a poem like 'Whinlands' observes the full bloom of the whin (also called furze or gorse) but notes:
The darkening of the poetry can be linked to the increasingly troubled political world in which Heaney grew up. The tensions in Northern Ireland became inescapable in the late 1960s, at the point when Heaney's literary reputation was being established with remarkable speed. The IRA campaign of the late 1950s and early 1960s had ended in 1962; but the development of protest politics worldwide, especially in the United States where the politics of the western world is incubated, prompted an emphasis on civil rights and forms of civil protest in Northern Ireland too. In August 1967 the first civil rights march took place at Dungannon, Co. Tyrone. Heaney, like many of his poetic contemporaries from both the catholic and protestant communities, took part, and the context became less ignorable as political activity became more intense. The relatively reluctant part he played – what he called in the voice of a major poem in Station Island (1984) his 'timid, circumspect involvement' – was hardened by his encounter with more politically outspoken poets in America, like Robert Bly and Gary Snyder in 1971.
The attempt to find a theme and imagery which would be 'adequate to our predicament', as he put it in his 1974 lecture 'Feeling into words', took a dramatic turn in Heaney's third book, Wintering out, in 1972. The title implies that the objective in that period was survival through hard times. Some of Heaney's most successfully grounded poems in the volume are woven from local place names, like Broagh and Anahorish, to express the linguistic (and therefore socio-historical) complexity of Northern Ireland. The deconstructing of place names was linked to the medieval Irish form dinnseanchas, 'lore of place'. But a more extended use of place names comes in the poem 'Tollund man'. In 1969 Heaney had read The bog people by P. V. Glob, a book graphically illustrated with beautiful black-and-white photographs which describes the excavation in Jutland of bodies preserved in bog, apparently after ritual killing. Heaney said that when he read it 'my roots were crossed with my reading'. His use of the barbarity of those killings as an image for conditions in contemporary Northern Ireland was controversial, accused by some commentators of suggesting that violence came with the terrain in northern climes.
The conceit of the bog poem in 'Tollund man' was developed extensively in the volume North (1975), Heaney's most prominent book up to that point. There is no doubting the power and expressiveness of the imagery, in its response to the violence captured in the terrible phrase 'neighbourly murder' ('Funeral rites'). Like his contemporaries in Northern Ireland, Heaney was faced with a dilemma: whether to draw on the events of the Troubles and be accused of exploiting suffering for artistic ends; or to ignore them and be accused of retreat to an ivory tower. Discussion of the bog poems centred most controversially on the poem 'Punishment' which compares the ritual killing of a young woman, 'the Windeby girl' pictured in Glob's book (in fact the figure is probably a young man), to the local punishment by tar-and-feathering of young women in Ulster who consorted with British soldiers. North was a celebrated and prize-winning collection, much admired outside Ireland for its facing up to the horrors of violence there. But its connection with age-old issues in Irish politics, and the conclusion of 'Punishment' – conniving 'in civilised outrage' but still understanding the 'tribal, intimate revenge' – were strongly criticised by some reviewers, including some of Heaney's previously most ardent admirers, such as Conor Cruise O'Brien (qv), for coming too close to a doctrinaire nationalist position.
When Dennis O'Driscoll in the important book of interviews with Heaney, Stepping stones (2008), asked how 'legitimate it would have been … for a poet living in Belfast not to have made any reference to the Troubles, and to have insisted on the autonomy of art by ignoring the social and anthropological reality outside the walls' (Stepping stones, 384), Heaney said '“Legitimate” is an unnerving word there'. The impossibility of ignoring public conditions was particularly acute for Heaney who increasingly had something of a public voice. In addition to writing for a number of journals in Belfast and London, notably the Listener in London, he had also begun to contribute regularly to arts and education programmes on BBC radio in 1967 and continued to do so for over ten years. From 1972 to 1977 he fronted a regular books programme, Imprint, on Radio Éireann. These activities inevitably led to attempts to enlist him for various causes: something which he discussed with some anxiety throughout his writing life. This dilemma was particularly marked for an emerging figure from the catholic and nationalist tradition which was the sector in Northern Ireland that was disempowered politically.
A major theme of his writing throughout his life was this maintaining of balance between the considerations of art and public duty for the artist: conflicting imperatives most extensively addressed in his 1987 book, The government of the tongue, and encapsulated in the title of his 1996 volume, The spirit level. In an interview with Melvyn Bragg in 1991 he said his 'temper' was not 'Brechtian' – that his natural inclination was not to voice political opinions; but several factors made it impossible for him to ignore public circumstances. On 24 October 1968 he wrote 'Old Derry's walls', an angry article in the Listener, accusing the Stormont minister of home affairs, William Craig (qv), of deploying the police in 'brutal control of the crowd' of demonstrators which included in their number Gerry Fitt (qv) of the Republican Labour Party and three British Labour MPs.
The move to the south of Ireland
On their return from America, the Heaneys explored the possibility of moving their young family from Belfast to a rural part of Northern Ireland. But early in 1972 they rented Glanmore cottage, the gate-lodge to Glanmore castle in Co. Wicklow, from the Canadian Synge scholar Ann Saddlemyer (ultimately they bought it from her in 1988). In the time free of teaching, he wrote some of his most noted poems in the four years living there full-time, including most of North (1975) and many of the poems in Field work (1979). Between 1973 and 1978 he was a member of the Arts Council of Ireland, and he edited Soundings, a new anthology of Irish poetry. He represented his return to teaching at Carysfort in 1975 as something of an admission of defeat for his career, though it coincided with the happy move to the house in Sandymount which was the highly successful Heaney family-house to the end of his life.
Meanwhile, his circle of literary acquaintance was widening rapidly through the 1970s, home and abroad, and his poetry-related engagements were multiplying. He had met Patrick Kavanagh (qv)and Ted Hughes in the late 1960s, both of whom he acknowledged as important influences on his poetry. In Berkeley in 1971, as well as the leading Californian poets, he met Cruise O'Brien and Thomas Flanagan, author of The year of the French (1979), who became a close friend. At international poetry gatherings, he got to know Robert Lowell and Joseph Brodsky, and the leading Scottish poets Norman MacCaig and Iain Crichton Smith. These encounters reinforced Heaney's attraction to the art side of his art-public duty dichotomy.
By the late 1970s, when the family was happily settled in Dublin and had access to the rural pleasures of Wicklow, Heaney wanted to lessen his answerability as commentator on the northern conflict and said he wanted the next book, by contrast to North, to be 'a door into the light'. But his fourth book Field work (1979) still contained some of his most powerful poems on the events in northern politics, such as 'Casualty' about Louis O'Neill, a fisherman and habitué of Heaney's father-in-law's pub, who was blown up by a pub bomb after Bloody Sunday, and 'The strand at Lough Beg', about the sectarian murder of Heaney's cousin Colum McCartney. The book also contained a poem 'After a killing' about the assassination of Christopher Ewart-Biggs (qv), the British ambassador in Dublin. He was also busy with all the entailments of his lecturing work at Carysfort which he found increasingly hard to combine with the growing demands on him as an international literary figure. In 1976 he was granted leave by Carysfort to return to Berkeley as Beckman professor, and in 1979 he and the family spent the spring semester at Harvard. In 1981 he resigned from Carysfort and the next year started an arrangement by which he would teach in Harvard for the spring semester for the next three years. In 1984 this was formalised as a tenured post, as Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory, and in 1987–8 he spent the full academic year there. He resigned from this distinguished position in 1996, to be appointed instead as Emerson poet in residence at Harvard, a non-teaching role which required a six-week visit in alternate years which he held until 2007.
At the time of Field work, another significant development in Heaney's literary publications was the appearance in 1980 of his first volume of prose writings, Preoccupations. As well as major critical writings, the book contains enlightening discussions of his personal life, his writing and the circumstances of Northern Ireland in the essays 'Mossbawn' and 'Belfast'. From that point onward Heaney is a poet-critic in an English tradition that extends from Philip Sidney to T. S. Eliot, and he was increasingly in demand as guest-lecturer or professor of poetry. Indeed he was increasingly active on all fronts. In 1981 he became a director of the Field Day theatre company, founded by Brian Friel (1929–2015) and Stephen Rea; in 1983 he published a Field Day verse pamphlet entitled An open letter, rejecting in genial terms his inclusion under the heading 'British' in The Penguin book of contemporary British poetry, edited by Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison. Later he edited the W. B. Yeats (qv) section of The Field Day anthology of Irish writing (1991), and his first play, 'The cure at Troy' (a translation of Philoctetes by Sophocles) was staged by Field Day in 1990.
Heaney's declared wish in writing Field work was to put the early poems behind him with the much-quoted observation 'Up to North that was one book', and escape towards a more indulgent writing stance free of public responsibility, expressed in the volume's first poem 'Oysters'. But escape from Northern politics was not an option. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a series of protests by nationalist prisoners culminated in the deaths on hunger strike of ten of them, including Francis Hughes (qv), a neighbour of Heaney's from Co. Derry, in May 1981. Although in the early 1980s at the time of the hunger strikes Heaney was no longer living in Belfast, the wider social reality there was impossible to ignore. So his next book, Station Island in 1984, was to some extent a retreat into the dark again, centring on a fictional pilgrimage to Lough Derg in the course of which the narrator encounters in a Dantesque purgatory dead figures from his personal past and the Irish past. The sequence ends with a meeting with a fictional James Joyce (qv) who tells the narrator-poet 'to write / for the joy of it' and not to 'be so earnest, / so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes' because he will 'lose more of yourself than you redeem / doing the decent thing.' It is a strikingly clear statement of the conflict between public answerability and artistic freedom.
Widening of the writing life
The year before the publication of Station Island, another Irish literary project came to fruition with the publication by Field Day of Sweeney astray, a translation of the medieval Irish text Buile Suibhne which Heaney had first embarked on in 1972. He translated a good proportion of it then, but returned to it seriously in 1979 and completed it in 1983. The story of the original has obvious bearing on his own circumstances, as he explained to Dennis O'Driscoll in an interview, 'Heaney's Sweeney' in Hibernia in 1979, saying 'there is something here for me'. The medieval narrative (also drawn on by Flann O'Brien (qv) in At Swim-Two-Birds) tells of the Ulster poet Sweeney who is banished by the cleric Ronan and travels throughout Ireland, itemised with detailed geographical references. The literary significance of the appearance of Sweeney astray was that it marked the start of Heaney's activities as a major translator, in an Irish heritage extending from the early nineteenth century and most famously in Heaney's time in the celebrated translation of Táin Bó Cuailnge by Thomas Kinsella (qv) in 1969 (glowingly reviewed by Heaney in the Listener). Heaney's translating activity from the first though was not confined to Irish sources; he was asked by Norton to make a verse-translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and in 1984–5 did about a hundred lines of it. He was unsatisfied by what he had done and gave up. In the event he resumed it in 1995 (after Norton, assuming he was not going to do it, asked him to propose someone else) and completed it in 1999 when it was named the Whitbread book of the year.
From 1983 onwards, as well as poet, critic and cultural commentator, Heaney was a prolific and admired translator from several sources, including two versions of plays by Sophocles, 'The cure at Troy' from Philoctetes (premiered by Field Day in 1990), and 'The burial at Thebes' from Antigone (2004). In common with other Northern Irish writers such as Tom Paulin, he seemed to find the received Greek text a non-ideological way of addressing political issues. And, as always in Heaney with his search for balance and what he called 'redress', the volume Station Island was by no means unremittingly dark. Outside the translation of Sweeney astray, the figure of Sweeney was carried over into the third section of Station Island called 'Sweeney redivivus', a series of much admired lyrics drawn in part from abandoned, more lyrical pieces of the earlier version of Sweeney astray. These served as a kind of counter-balance to the parts of the central sequence 'Station Island' that dealt with contemporary events and the Troubles (notably two poems dealing with sectarian killings: number vii, the encounter with William Strathearn; and viii in which Heaney's cousin Colum McCartney protests at the aestheticising of his murder in 'The strand at Lough Beg').
In 1984, the year of the publication of Station Island (and of Sweeney astray by Faber in London), Heaney's mother died; two years later his father died. His next book The haw lantern (1987) has been most admired for its sequence, 'Clearances', in memory of his mother (one of its poems, 'When all the others were away at Mass' was voted the nation's favourite poem in an RTÉ poll in 2015). Duty towards family and friends had always been important for him; it became increasingly explicit in his work from this point onwards, culminating in his late poems for grandchildren and devotion to his parents in the early poems in Human chain in 2010 and in the Virgilian search for the father in his posthumously published translation of Aeneid book vi. This centrality of family, from Mossbawn to burial in Bellaghy graveyard, gives an apt poignancy to the volume 100 poems, a selection made by his family in 2018.
This elegiac and personal vein was shared with his previously established themes in the volumes after his parents' deaths. The haw lantern, as well as the 'Clearances' sonnets, contains a series of political allegories, suggested at least in part by his encounters with poetry from the more closed world of Eastern Europe in the 1980s. As early as 1975 in 'Exposure' at the end of North, he had borrowed the terminology of the émigrés de l'intérieur of that world, saying he was 'neither internee nor informer', an 'inner émigré' 'escaped from the massacre' whose escape might mean he has missed the 'once-in-a-lifetime portent'. The haw lantern was published in the same year as The government of the tongue with its prose discussions of poetic freedom and responsibility. One of the allegories, 'From the republic of conscience', was written in response to a commission from Amnesty International in 1985 to mark United Nations Day and was reprinted in 2009 in an anthology of writings 'Inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights', edited by Sean Love, founding director of Art for Amnesty and Amnesty Education. Love's anthology used the title of Heaney's poem as its title, and Heaney wrote the introduction, 'The poetic redress'.
The idea of redress, which Heaney says he took from the French writer Simone Weil, becomes even more crucial for him from this point onwards, to represent the balance that is required between various dualities: for example public duty versus artistic freedom, personal experience versus cultural tradition, the place of English language and literature in Ireland versus the displaced Gaelic tradition. These conflicts and choices became more marked for him the more internationally active he became. When in 1989 he was elected professor of poetry at Oxford, following such heroes of his as A. C. Bradley, Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden, C. Day-Lewis (qv) and Robert Graves, his first lecture was entitled 'The redress of poetry', which was also the title of the book drawing on the lectures, published in 1995. The subjects of the lectures reflected his familiar interests and dilemmas, from Ovid to Brian Merriman (qv) and from Christopher Marlowe to Elizabeth Bishop. One of the lectures – the one he put last in the book – was called 'Frontiers of writing', drawing on one of the most successful of the political allegories in The haw lantern, 'From the frontier of writing' which linked the hostile interrogation of a military road-block to the interrogation at the critical frontier of writing 'where it happens again. The guns on tripods; / the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating // data about you, waiting for the squawk / of clearance.' It is a very successful bringing together of the two anxieties – the political and the literary. In the lecture that ends The redress of poetry, he returns to the night in 1981 when the funeral of the hunger-striker Francis Hughes was taking place in Bellaghy and Heaney was spending the night in Sir Keith Joseph's room in All Souls, Oxford, at the heart of the British establishment. He invokes again the notion of redress, to consider how poetry might 'help' (the word used by the Greek poet Seferis) to restore the balance to the weaker side. The essay was an important summary of Heaney's considered view of the art-responsibility dilemma; Ted Hughes admired it as a statement of Irish-British relations which would make Ireland's problems clearer in Britain.
Bid for freedom
When Heaney took up his role at Oxford in 1989, he held it in tandem with his Harvard duties. It was an extraordinarily productive period in his writing too; in 1990 'The cure at Troy' was staged, first in Derry and in various places immediately afterwards. He was also rapidly putting together his next book Seeing things (1991) which marked a bold departure from the preceding volumes with their various obligations. It was a bid, as he had hoped for Field work, for a more personal field of writing where the imagination would have freer rein. Again, the book had some powerful personal poems, notably the title poem with its description of the near-death experience of his 'undrowned father'. It starts with the great imaginative claim for inspiration by translating the Golden Bough passage from Aeneid book vi, a work which had always been important for Heaney and was to become increasingly so to the end of his life. His translation of the whole of Book vi was published posthumously by his daughter Catherine and Matthew Hollis of Faber in 2016.
In a series of forty-eight poems headed 'Squarings', Heaney used the most distinctive form since the augur-like 'skinny quatrains' of the bog poems. He tells how the form – four three-line stanzas – just took shape when he had been working on his selection of Yeats in the reading room of the National Library of Ireland. In fact it was the stanza-form he had already devised for the allegorical poems in The haw lantern, and it was to return as the dominant form of his last completed book, Human chain in 2010. In the poem 'Fosterling' which came before 'Squarings', he remarks how improbable it was that he had to wait 'until I was nearly fifty / to credit marvels.' Now it was 'Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.'
A further lightening, this time public, came with the IRA ceasefire in 1994; the other warring factions gradually followed suit. In keeping with his established alternating pattern from volume to volume, his next book The spirit level mixed the public with the personal again, its title a reminder of the need for equilibrium and redress towards the weaker side. The book ends with two decidedly positive poems, the much loved 'Postscript' at the end, after 'Tollund' has rejoiced in the possibility of 'a new beginning … Ourselves again, free-willed again, not bad'. But earlier in the book had come one of Heaney's least optimistic sequences, 'Mycenae lookout', which revisits the terrain of 'Punishment', deploring violence against women. Another poem, 'The flight path', recalls a meeting on a train with the Sinn Féin activist Danny Morrison in 1979 when he asked Heaney when he is going to write 'something for us'. Heaney tells Dennis O'Driscoll in Stepping stones that he had pondered dedicating the poem 'Ugolino' to the prisoners but felt he could not after this direct appeal. (Later he said to O'Driscoll 'I translated “Ugolino” in order for it to be read in the context of the “dirty protests” in the Maze prison.' (Stepping stones, 425).) So the 'crediting marvels' of Seeing things was not an untroubled change towards imaginative freedom, in keeping with Heaney's general practice of avoiding single postures, however appealing.
Before the publication of The spirit level a life-changing event had occurred in 1995 when Heaney was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. The Heaneys were in Greece on holiday with friends when the announcement was made; the award ceremony was in Stockholm in December 1995. For all the celebration it occasioned, national as well as personal, in some ways it put a brake on the bids for freedom: he described the effect of the prize to O'Driscoll as 'Joy to start with, certainly, then a gradual burdening' (Stepping stones, 369). He had already been much in demand in all areas; the Nobel prize greatly increased those demands.
In the speech 'Crediting poetry' at the Stockholm award ceremony, Heaney returned to the theme of artistic freedom and poetry's power to help. His title goes back to his 'crediting marvels' in 'Fosterling', declaring the attraction of 'walking on air' (linked to the last line of a poem of that time 'The gravel walks', which appears on Heaney's gravestone: 'So walk on air against your better judgement'). But the Nobel talk is a powerful jeremiad against the violence of history, particularly in the twentieth century; he says, 'history is about as instructive as an abattoir'. The concluding endeavour is to 'make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous.'
Post-Nobel: The millennium
In 1998 Heaney's most substantial and canon-forming selection Opened ground: poems 1966–1996 was published, taking its optimistic title from the second of the 'Glanmore sonnets' in Field work and appending the Nobel lecture. It included poems up to The spirit level, published only two years before. In 1999 his translation of Beowulf had been published; like The spirit level it was selected as the Whitbread book of the year, a relatively uncommon recognition for a poetry book. In 2002 he published Finders keepers as a kind of prose companion to Opened ground. Heaney drew on his three prose collections for it and added some essays not previously published in book form. It ended with a short essay on the Polish/Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz, entitled 'Secular and millennial Milosz', written in 1999 at the end of the millennium and paying tribute to the Eastern European writer he most revered. The book also follows the structure of his first prose collection, Preoccupations, with the essays of personal memory at the start. The essay 'Mossbawn' has the same dominance in the prose collections as 'Digging' has in the poems, deriving from the same locus.
Electric light, his first volume of poems written after the Nobel prize and the Northern Ireland ceasefires, was published in 2001. The volume's second section is a series of elegies of friends and poets. The more substantial first section celebrates Heaney's visit to Greece, but also contains three Virgilian eclogues, one of them a tribute to Ann Saddlemyer as the patron who has favoured the poet at Glanmore as Augusta, Lady Gregory (qv) served Yeats. In Electric light, friends and family from Heaney's past are celebrated and mourned by their 'Real names', the term used as the title to one of these commemorative poems (which he had considered as a title for the book). Politics are at the edges of these poems: there is a shadow presence of violence in the poem 'Known world' which describes the hilarity of the events at a poetry gathering at Struga in Macedonia in 1978. The drunken high spirits in the poem are not its deeper spirit, and it says 'That old sense of a tragedy going on / Uncomprehended, at the very edge / Of the usual, it never left me once …'. We remember 'the old man-killing parishes' in 'Tollund man' where the narrator 'will feel lost, / Unhappy and at home.' And the one reference to Northern Irish troubles is a particularly desolating one: among the idyllic 'Sonnets from Hellas', 'King Augeus's reeking yard and stables' is the mythological setting for 'Sean Brown's murder in the grounds / Of Bellaghy GAA Club'.
After the Nobel prize, the requests for contributions to different series and different causes was unending (Stepping stones, 423). And, as his international engagements and travels expanded, so did the range of what he called 'civic service' extend beyond Ireland and Britain. His translation of Sophocles in 'The cure at Troy' in 1990 contained lines that became very familiar with application to Ireland, quoted by Mary Robinson, Gerry Adams, Nadine Gordimer and Bill Clinton: 'once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme'. In 2001, the year of the appearance of Electric light, once again Heaney rose to the challenge of an unignorable event, this time in a global context. The most effective response in poetry to the 9/11 attacks in New York was his free translation of poem thirty-four in Book One of Horace's Odes, 'Anything can happen', which was translated into twenty-four languages and published 'in support of Art for Amnesty' (2004). The volume in which the millennium, with its implication of major change, is prominent (including 'Anything can happen') is District and Circle in 2006. The implication of the volume's title is very suggestive: as always in Heaney, but more markedly in the later books, the to-and-fro movement between the originary district and the wider world it leads to is his primary material.
By the time of 'The burial at Thebes' (2004), the application of its story of Antigone and Creon had a wider relevance in the era of George W. Bush's 'war on terror'. Heaney calls Creon's phrase 'I'll flush 'em out' a 'Bushism' and says that in the play 'here and there the word “patriot” is employed with a definite neo-conservative righteousness' (Stepping stones, 423). Also in 2004, he read the poem 'Beacons at Bealtaine' at Áras an Uachtaráin to the twenty-five heads of government of the European Union to mark Ireland's presidency. Even if Mossbawn remained the stable centre of his writing, by now he is established at the foreground of world poetry. He was active on the home front too in the decade following the Nobel prize. In 1996 he opened the Bellaghy Bawn Visitors Centre which included books, readings and memorabilia by him. He gave the memorial address in Westminster Abbey for Ted Hughes in 1999 and for R. S. Thomas in 2001. He had many important recognitions in his own name, notably the opening of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's Belfast in 2004, and of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy in 2016.
Later life and writing
Heaney's activities were curtailed in August 2006 when he suffered a stroke, after which his engagements were cancelled for twelve months. In the aftermath of the stroke his locus within his family became even more marked than usual, and his last book Human chain (2010) reflects this. It was a book, at last, which is wholly free of 'civic service', but it was seen as one of his great successes in its sustained elegiac spirit. The human chain of the title links the poet after his stroke to his wife's hand, but its linkage extends too from his own grandfather and parents to his granddaughters, linking family past to future. One of the book's major successes was 'Route 110' (for his granddaughter Anna Rose), starting with the young poet buying a 'used copy of Aeneid vi' in a Belfast bookshop before taking the bus home, 'For Route 110, Cookstown via Toome and Magherafelt'. Once again, the home journey is linked to the mythological journeys in Virgil and Dante. The details of Human chain gained great poignancy when Heaney died suddenly on 30 August 2013 in the Blackrock Clinic, Dublin, leading to an extraordinary outpouring of national grieving. At his funeral his son Michael told the congregation that his last verbal communication was a text to his wife as he was being taken into the operating theatre, which said 'Noli timere', 'Do not be afraid' – expressed as Michael said in 'his beloved Latin'.
'Route 110' and Michael's observation were brought to fruition by the posthumous publication of his translation of Aeneid book vi in 2016. His lifelong agonising between the demands of public duty and poetic jurisdiction is summarised in his own 'Note on the text' appended to the Aeneid translation by its editors, his daughter Catherine and Matthew Hollis of Faber: 'For the contemporary reader, it is the best of books and the worst of books. Best because of its mythopoeic visions, the twilit fetch of its language, the pathos of the many encounters it allows the living Aeneas with his familiar dead. Worst because of its imperial certitude, its celebration of Rome's manifest destiny and the catalogue of Roman heroes.' It makes a very apt coda to the various imperatives that Heaney's writing has operated with.
Literary and public standing
From the first, Heaney's work was received with admiration and won leading literary awards. Most of his works were awarded major prizes: Sweeney astray won the PEN translation award in 1985, and 'The cure at Troy' won the Lannan Literary Award in 1990. He was elected commandeur de l'ordre des arts et lettres in 1996, the year after he won the Nobel prize. In 1998 he was elected as a saoi of Aosdána, the highest artistic accolade given in Ireland, and in 2005 was given the PEN award, presented by his friend and Field Day colleague, the poet Tom Paulin. In 2009 he was given the David Cohen prize for literature, awarded by the English Arts Council for the lifetime achievement of a whole literary corpus. All the volumes of poetry won one or more prizes, in Europe, the USA and beyond.
In 1988 he gave his lecture notes to the University of Emory in Atlanta, to which he also donated a substantial volume of his letters (1964–2003) in 2003, in honour of the retiring President of Emory, William M. Chace. His media archive is held in the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's. In December 2011 he donated (and delivered by family car, with his son Michael) the most important parts of his literary archive to the National Library in Dublin. In July 2018 a three-year exhibition curated by Geraldine Higgins based on his papers in the NLI, was opened at the Bank of Ireland Cultural Centre at College Green, Dublin, called 'Listen now again'.