The delicate density of a genius

John Walsh describes the rise and rise of a Londonderry-born literary hero
"Hats off gentlemen, a genius," Brahms directed a roomful of musicians on first hearing Liszt play the piano; just as people have been proclaiming Seamus Heaney's genius almost from the outset.

"Soon people are going to start comparing him to Yeats," Clive James observed on the publication of Wintering Out, and that was in 1972 when the Londonderry-born bard was a tender 33. Now 56, with eight volumes of verse and three essay collections to his name, only Geoffrey Hill, Les A Murray, Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott (the latter two Nobel Laureates) come close in global reclame. Heaney's special quality resides in his poetic completeness: his skill as a user of language wedded to the delicacy of his epiphanies and the subtlety of his critical insights.

His poetry has always been characterised by dense syllabic lines, thick- textured as the turf of Mossbawn, his family home. From evoking the sights and smells and threats of rural life - the churning-day crocks, the flax- dam invaded by an army of bolted frogs - he moved on to consider the roots of violence in his native Ulster.

His most daring mythopoeic stroke dates from those years, when he drew an explicit connection between Provo and UVF murders, and the ancient tribal rituals of Scandinavia; the medieval sacrificial rites of the Tollund Men. "Out there in Jutland," he wrote, "In the old man-killing parishes,/I will feel lost,/Unhappy and at home". It was an act of perfect imaginative sympathy.

After North, Heaney's role as an essentially public writer was established. He became a kind of ambassador of poetry on the global lecture circuit. His work began to consider the language that is shared but fought over by English and Irish, the huge symbolic properties contained in a verb or in an oyster - "the frond-lipped, brine-stung glut/of privilege". Though his language never lost its gnarled and knotted music, or its magical precision, his concerns became increasingly rarefied in The Haw Lantern and Station Island, and his imagination seemed to turn inward. But in Clearances, a sequence of sonnets to his late mother, and in his most recent collection, Seeing Things, he returned spectacularly to form, through his own past, writing of the "space" that was enrichingly cleared in his life by death, and the intimations of the numinous that wake the everyday world into sudden light, and transform it as his own poetry transformed mud and stones into statement. He is an exhilarating man to meet, the narrow slits of his eyes (in that vast battlement of a head) constantly creased with laughter, his huge ploughman's grip dwarfing one's citified fingers.

He will argue enthusiastically with star-struck students about critical theory, extemporise risky literary formulations (speaking of someone's attempt to represent Wilde as a killer satirist, he once told me: "Synge goes right in under the nail; Wilde just glides along the top of it.") then escape to hear his friend David Hammond play Sink Her in the Lowland Sea on a battered folk guitar. Heaney is a literary hero sans pareil in a world where heroes are few. Hats off gentlemen, indeed.