Nobel Laureate and Irish poet Seamus Heaney, whose work affected and influenced generations, has died at age 74. From the Irish Independent:
Seamus Heaney, who has died in hospital in Dublin at the age of 74 after a short illness, was probably the best-known poet in the world. He is irreplaceable, and for his many friends and admirers there will be a tremendous sense of private as well as public bereavement.
Heaney, born in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, is considered the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. He also was someone I knew as brother-in-law of one of my oldest friends, so the loss hits on a personal level. He and his wife, Marie herself the author of several books including Over Nine Waves, A Book of Irish Legends, lived in Sandymount, Co. Dublin, in a house with gardens overflowing with plants and flowers, including the hard-to-grow California native, the Matilija poppy. Stunning to see its white petals and yellow center against the low Irish clouds.
Heaney’s death has made the world a smaller place: He was a warm, kind and strong intellectual presence; vibrant, funny, charismatic. His poetry readings drew voracious crowds, so entranced that they were dubbed Heaneyboppers by the media. Heaney began to write poetry while a student at Queen’s University in Belfast, and began to publish his work in 1962. He married Marie Devlin in 1965, the year his first book of poetry, Eleven, was published. A year later he was appointed lecturer at Queen’s College, Belfast and his second book of poems Death of Naturalist, was published. The book, which included the poem “Mid-Term Break,” won the Eric Gregory Award for Young Writers and the Geoffrey Faber Prize. “Mid-Term Break” (and the later “The Blackbird of Glanmore” from District and Circle) focus on the death of his younger brother Christopher, who struck by car at age 4 while Heaney was in boarding school.
As he continued to write and publish poetry, Heaney became a guest lecturer at University of California, Berkekey before returning to Ireland, where he began to teach at Carysfort College in Dublin (he would go on to become the Head of English there before leaving to lecture at Harvard in 1981) and to give public readings of his work.
Heaney’s Selected Poems 1965-1975 and Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 were published in 1980. When Aosdána, the national Irish Arts Council, was established in 1981, Heaney was among those elected into its first group, and later elected a Saoi, one of its five elders and the IAC’s highest honour, in 1997 . Heaney felt it important to acknowledge and assert that he was Irish not British, and his work reflects his Irishness, his sense of growing up Irish, his view of the world as an Irishman.
Heaney went on to become Professor of Poetry at Oxford University and to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the Nobel committee described as:
works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.
Actor Liam Neeson, also born in Northern Ireland, told the BBC:
With Seamus Heaney’s passing, Ireland, and Northern Ireland especially, has lost a part of its artistic soul. He crafted, through his poetry, who we are as a species and the living soil that we toiled in. By doing so, he defined our place in the universe. May he rest in peace.
Former President Bill Clinton was also a close friend of Heaney, visiting the poet in hospital after his stroke in 2006; Clinton also named his dog Seamus in honor of the poet. He had this to say of Heaney’s passing:
His uniquely Irish gift for language made him our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives and a powerful voice for peace.
Clinton used Heaney’s phrase
when hope and history rhyme
from Heaney’s play Cure at Troy in his 1995 speech in Derry, and went on to use it for the title of his 1996 book detailing his vision of the USA in the 21st Century. At the memorial service for Sean Collier, a campus police officer who was killed in the line of duty during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Vice President Biden quoted the whole phrase from Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ play Philoctetes.
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
One of the most lasting memories that I have of Heaney, who I last saw in 2009, is of him and his wife Marie at a Horslips concert, where he sang along with the lyrics, excited and smiling to see the band which takes traditional Irish tunes and themes (including Irish mythology like the Tain and the Book of Invasions) and rocks them out. No stranger to pop culture, in 2003 Heaney praised rap artist Eminem, saying:
He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around a generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy.
Heaney himself created a sense of what is possible and made it so, sending a voltage around several generations with his vast knowledge and verbal energy. Rest in peace.