Poet, playwright, translator, essayist;
Born: April13, 1939; Died: August 30 2013.
Seamus Heaney, who has died aged 74, was one of the outstanding figures in 21st-century literature.
Born shortly before the start of the Second World War, he was brought up in a three-roomed thatched house on Mossbawn Farm in County Londonderry. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, he described this home as "an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other".
The eldest of nine children, one of whom died at the age of four when he was run over by a car, Heaney was born into a world of conflict - not only the war, or the Northern Irish Troubles, but in his own otherwise gentle family. The son of a farmer and a mother whose family worked in the linen mill, he was aware, he later said, of the tension between two different backgrounds: the ancient, timeless Irish rural way of life and the brash industrial revolution.
Such friction was put to good use in Heaney's literary career, in which his bone-deep love of the countryside marched hand in hand with a desire to bridge the troubling past with the equally difficult present.
As a boy, Heaney won a scholarship to St Columb's College, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Derry. He took a first class degree in English at Queen's University Belfast, and it was while there that he first read Ted Hughes's collection, Lupercal. This proved the turning point of his life, inspiring him to write: "Suddenly, the matter of contemporary poetry was the material of my own life".
Other influences around this time were the subversive Patrick Kavanagh, the melancholy Robert Frost, and the influential academic Philip Hobsbaum, whose literary salon was to become famous for nurturing not just Heaney but other such luminaries as Derek Mahon and Michael Longley. In this company, Heaney for many years pursued a dual career as a teacher, in schools and colleges, with that of a burgeoning poet.
He published his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966. In what remains one of his most popular poems, Digging, he evoked an indelible image of his farming heritage and his literary ambitions: "Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests, snug as a gun".
It was a fitting symbol for the times, but in 1972 Heaney and his wife Marie Devlin and young family moved from Belfast to Dublin, where he took a teaching post at the Carysfort College. He was to live there for the rest of his life. Describing the day he took possession of the keys for his large house, close to the sea, he recalled: "John McGahern and Alan Sillitoe were with me. It was black from outside. There was no electricity. McGahern said: 'You've bought a coffin!'."
He recounted this anecdote as a means of stalling an interview I had arrived to conduct for The Herald, an ordeal of which he said stoically, "We've both got to get through it." More than the acres of books in this hospitable house, which were to be expected, I recall him showing me a magnificent painting of a Friesian cow in one of his back rooms, the animal presiding over filing cabinets as if peering over a barbed-wire fence.
Heaney's debut collection was feted, as was almost every book that followed, and he was soon regarded as one of the most talented poets of his day. That today his books account for a staggering two thirds of all poetry by living poets sold in the UK is testament to a directness of style that, for all the complexities that underlie it, is accessible to everyone.
As literary critic Blake Morrison wrote, he is "that rare thing, a poet rated highly by critics and academics yet popular with 'the common reader'." Or, as another admirer put it: "His is the gift of saying something extraordinary while, line by line, conveying a sense that this is something an ordinary person might actually say." Robert Lowell called him "the most important Irish poet since Yeats", and collections such as Field Work, The Haw Lantern, Electric Light, District and Circle, and Human Chain certainly upheld that verdict.
Recipient of countless awards, from the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award and Griffin Poetry Prize, to the Whitbread and TS Eliot Prize, he also had such a profusion of honorary degrees that when asked how many he had under his belt, he laughingly could not recall. Some accolades he did refuse, however, such as the poet laureateship. Proudly Irish, he wrote: "Be advised my passport's green./ No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the Queen."
Not all admired him. Some believed that the politics he espoused made him something of a mythologizer, or apologist. But he was unrepentant, saying that all a poet could do, when treading the delicate line between the political and the personal, was "be true to yourself". Politics were important to him, but he paid even greater attention to the things that matter more, and go deeper.
In 1981 he left his Dublin teaching post and became first a professor at Harvard University, then from 1989 to 1994 Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. After becoming a Nobel laureate his public duties multiplied, but he never ceased writing. His output was prodigious, comprising 13 or more collections, plays, several books of essays and prose, and a series of challenging translations. Most acclaimed of these was his version of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which he dedicated to Ted Hughes. He also tackled iconic Scottish works, notably Sorley MacLean's Hallaig, which he read to a rapt audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2002, and Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid.
Attracting such enthusiastic praise that his fans were dubbed "Heanyboppers", he was admired by people from all walks, be they schoolchildren and students or Hillary Clinton, who called him "my favourite Irish". Nevertheless, Heaney managed to combine natural sociability with a talent for keeping the private part of himself intact. As he told me: ''One definition of writing is self-forgetfulness, of shedding the social self, trying to get chloroformed out of that and into something else. Various dodges have to be taken up."
One such was buying a cottage in County Wicklow, a retreat that features in some of his most powerfully lyrical poems. ''It's like a listening post for your first self. It's just a house that secludes and is like a powerpoint to me.''
For all his fame, Heaney never made huge claims for poetry, preferring to let it speak for itself. What he would say, however, was that "if poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness".
Perhaps above all, he will be remembered for his elegies, which form the core of his work. On the news of his death, some might be consoled by lines Heaney composed for his mother, in his Clearances sonnets. Contemplating the hole left by an uprooted chestnut tree, he wrote: "I thought of walking round and round a space/Utterly empty, utterly a source".
He is survived by his wife Marie, and his children Michael, Christopher and Catherine Ann.
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