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.

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice