Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet awarded the Nobel prize in 1995, died on Friday morning in Dublin hospital. He was 74.
Heaney was the eldest of nine children, born to a Catholic farming family in County Derry, Northern Ireland in 1939. He revisited his birthplace, and his childhood, often in his poetry; in "Sunlight," written in 1975, he recalls his aunt Mary waiting for her baking to rise:
Now she dusts the board
with a goose's wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails
and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.
And here is love
like a tinsmith's scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
Heaney managed to win a scholarship to a well-known parochial school in Derry, where he was head prefect; after, he read English literature at Queen's University, Belfast and took a job as a teacher. He began writing poetry in earnest. His first collection, Death of a Naturalist, was extraordinarily well-received, and "Digging," the poem that opens the book, is still widely anthologized:
(It also contains the quietly devastating "Mid-Term Break," about the death of Seamus' young brother Christopher: "Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,/He lay in the four foot box as in his cot./No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear./A four foot box, a foot for every year.")
As the sectarian "Troubles" began to take hold in Northern Ireland, Heaney moved south to the Republic of Ireland. His poems, rarely explicitly political (and much criticized for being so), nonetheless undertook an accounting of the country of his birth, and the violence that was consuming it. In "Whatever you say, say nothing," written "just after an encounter/With an English journalist in search of 'views/On the Irish thing,'" Heaney remembers the social jockeying and subtle signals of his childhood:
Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule
That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
In 1982, he accepted a teaching position at Harvard. He would stay there for 15 years. Grantland's Brian Phillips remembered him as a professor on Twitter this morning:
He was my teacher in college. I stood him up for a meeting once and my punishment was to go for a pint with him at Grafton St.— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) August 30, 2013
This was maybe four months after he won the Nobel. It seemed totally reasonable to me at the time.— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) August 30, 2013
First, that I could just not show up for a meeting with Seamus Heaney because I was having a fight with my girlfriend or whatever.— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) August 30, 2013
Second, that of course he would be patient and generous enough to say "Oh well. Let's go have a beer."— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) August 30, 2013
Because all Nobel Prizewinners would naturally understand the overriding importance of being 19.— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) August 30, 2013
And anyway, I remember complaining to him that people hadn't understood something I'd written. And because I was a terrible show-off,— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) August 30, 2013
and knew one relevant quote, I said, "Didn't Stevens say that the poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully?"— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) August 30, 2013
And he took a pull of his Guinness — yeah, he really drank Guinness — and nodded like he was considering that. And then he said:— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) August 30, 2013
"Well, that's true, Brian. But he did say ALMOST."— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) August 30, 2013
Heaney was awarded the Nobel prize in 1995. Four years later, he published his acclaimed translation of "Beowulf."
Heaney is survived by his three children and his wife, Marie, about whom he wrote the poem "The Underground." Here's Heaney reading it: