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Farewell, Seamus Heaney

An Irish Poet of Soil and Strife, Dies at 74

Seamus Heaney, the 1995 Nobel laureate in Literature who has often been described as the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died on Friday in Dublin. He was 74.

His publisher, Faber & Faber, announced the death. The apparent cause was complications of a stroke Mr. Heaney suffered in 2006.

The Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, said the nation was in a deep mourning that only the poet himself could describe. “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of our language, our codes, our essence as a people,” he told The Irish Times.

A native of Northern Ireland, Mr. Heaney, a Roman Catholic, was renowned for work that powerfully evoked the beauty and blood that together have come to define the modern Irish condition. The author of more than a dozen collections of poetry, as well as critical essays and works for the stage, he repeatedly explored the strife and moral quandaries that have plagued his homeland, while managing simultaneously to steer clear of polemic.

Mr. Heaney’s poetry had a primeval, epiphanic quality and was often suffused with references to myths — Celtic, of course, but also those of ancient Greece. His style, linguistically pyrotechnic, was at the same time conspicuously lacking in the obscurity that can attend poetic pyrotechnics.

At its best, his work had both a meditative lyricism and an airy velocity. His lines might carry a boggy melancholy, but they also, as often as not, communicated the wild onrushing joy of being alive.

“Digging,” the first poem in his first collection, “The Death of a Naturalist,” described his father digging potatoes and his grandfather digging turf. The last lines seemed to set down a personal manifesto:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

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.

And dig he did, producing a remarkable range of work: love poems, epic poems, poems about conflict and strife, odes to nature, poems addressed to friends, poems for the dead, poems that simply reveled in the sound of the English language.

In his hands, that language was plain and clear, often dazzling, with images of bogs and rocks and streams, as well as epiphanies of the soul. For Mr. Heaney, nature provided settings for moral problems, and through them he seemed to reach agnostics and Catholic believers alike.

After he gained fame with “Death of a Naturalist,” Mr. Heaney never eased his pace. Publishing more than a dozen major collections between 1966 and 2010 — his later volumes include “The Spirit Level,” “District and Circle” and “Bog Poems” — he became acknowledged as a major literary voice of the 20th century. Robert Lowell, for one, called him the “most important Irish poet since Yeats.”

He also wrote two plays, four works on the process of poetry and a well-regarded translation of “Beowulf.” He won dozens of accolades, among them the French Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1996 and the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2006.

Mr. Heaney was that rarity among modern poets: not only critically praised but also widely read. Millions of readers bought his books, finding his verse eminently accessible, with its familiar images and universal thoughts.

In a 1984 poem, “Old Smoothing Iron,” for example, about a woman ironing a sheet, he expressed a kind of hardened optimism about life:

To work, her dumb lunge says,

is to move a certain mass

through a certain distance,

is to pull your weight and feel

exact and equal to it.

Feel dragged upon. And buoyant.

By some estimates, no other living poet was read so widely in recent decades.

“Book sales may not mean much in the areas of fiction or biography, but for a poet to sell in the thousands is remarkable proof to his ability to speak in his poems to what are inadequately called ‘ordinary people,’ “ The Irish Times wrote in an editorial after Mr. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize. “Yet the popularity of his work should not be allowed to obscure the fact that this is deep, at times profound poetry, forged through hard thinking and an attentive, always tender openness to the world, especially the natural world.”

Seamus Justin Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, on a farm called Mossbawn in County Derry in the western part of the British province of Northern Ireland. He was the eldest of nine children.

He recalled his father, Patrick, a cattle dealer and farmer, as a dour man suspicious of verbiage. His mother, the former Margaret Kathleen McCann, also had little interest in literature, but, as Mr. Heaney recalled, she used to “recite lists of affixes and suffixes, and Latin roots, with their English meanings, rhymes that formed part of her early schooling in the early part of the century.”

All around him, Mr. Heaney watched police and public officials of the predominantly Protestant province treat Catholics with disdain, sometimes with cruelty. One of his biographers, Michael Parker, wrote, “It could be argued that while Heaney’s exposure to what he now regards as ‘cultural colonialism’ may have bred feelings of inferiority and insecurity in the short term, in the long term it also honed his sense of identity and provided him with sustenance from two rich traditions.”

Seamus proved to be a bright boy, and he was sent on a scholarship to St Columb’s College in Derry at the age of 12. His brother Christopher was killed in a road accident at the age of 4 while Mr. Heaney was studying at the school, and the later poems “Mid-Term Break” and “The Blackbird of Glanmore” refer to the death.

Later he studied for a degree in English at Queen’s University in Belfast. He went to work as a schoolteacher, then a lecturer in English at Queen’s College in Belfast and later at Carysfort College, a teacher training school near Dublin. Then, in 1972, one of the most deadly years in the conflict in Northern Island’, he gave up full-time academic work to be a freelance writer, publishing the collection “Wintering Out.”

He began wrestling with the evils of Ulster’s sectarian strife and discrimination in his next collection, capturing the uneasiness of daily life in a divided society in poems such as “Whatever You Say Say Nothing” and “Funeral Rites.”

For much of his career, Mr. Heaney was under pressure to write favorably about the goals of his fellow Catholics, many of whom wanted a Northern Ireland free of British control. But while his work often concerned the violence in Ulster, he saw both sides of the conflict and avoided polemics in support of the Irish Republican Army. Though he resented British oppression in Northern Ireland, he said, he admired much in British culture and English literature.

And he was wary of extreme positions. As a young man, Mr. Heaney said, he felt excited by the rise the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the outlawed group using violence to end Northern Ireland’s union with Britain. His views changed later.

“There was a sense of an utterly wasteful, cancerous stalemate, and that the violence was unproductive,” he said in 2009. “It was villainous, but you were living with it. Only after it stopped did you realize what you had lived with.”

Following his Nobel Prize, Mr. Heaney became a frequent lecturer at universities around the world and often conducted public readings in his resonant baritone voice. But he scaled back public commitments after he suffered the stroke.

Mr. Heaney is survived by his wife, Marie, and his children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.

The critic Richard Eder, writing in The Los Angeles Times, saw Mr. Heaney as something of a public poet, a bard who sprang from the farms and streets of his native country and who could speak directly to those who lived there with him.

“Art as the wizardry of style, on the one hand, and art as personal and public expression, on the other,” Mr. Eder wrote. “Not many can fuse the two nowadays, and no one writing in English does it so well as Heaney. He employs poetry’s power to tell truth, and the artist’s power to make us know that it is a truth we need.”

But for Mr. Heaney, poetry was ultimately not a political act, or an obligation. In the 1984 poetry collection, “Station Island,” he wrote:

The main thing is to write

for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust

that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.

You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.

Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest.”

 

 

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