Seamus Heaney: the poet who held fast to his land

A celebration of the life and work of the Nobel laureate, who died in Ireland last week

Share
Related Topics

The death of Seamus Heaney on Friday has robbed these islands of one of their few poets of truly international stature. Among the dwindling group of poetic galácticos – among them Heaney's friend and fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, the Australian Les Murray, arguably Paul Muldoon and Geoffrey Hill – none has achieved the reach, status, or simply name-recognition of the man from Derry.

But there was rather more to Heaney than "Famous Seamus". That he occupied such an exalted position within the global republic of verse is not without its seeming ironies, and they have a specifically political flavour. Born and raised on one side of the border, he decided to cross to the other; when Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion included him in their Penguin Contemporary Book of British Poetry in 1982, he wrote to object: "Be advised/My passport's green/No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen."

The literature in which he was schooled (Hopkins and Frost were early and lasting influences) and the language that he crafted with such rapt attention to its sonorous qualities was, on one view, that of the invader, the coloniser, the imperialist. In the mid-1970s prose poem "Stations of the West", he wrote of his first visit to the Gaeltacht: "I sat on a twilit bedside listening through the wall to fluent Irish, homesick for a speech I was to extirpate."

He did no such thing, of course. And it is ironic, given his global reach, that his greatness as a poet is grounded in his determination to stay true to local topologies of language, culture and identity, to the boglands, alluvial mud, waist-deep mists and mizzling rain of the land that grew him.

But this is no simple fetishisation of the local; Heaney could also locate his poems' concerns within the broader world. Central to this is his recognition, as he outlined it in his Nobel lecture in 1995, that totalising ideologies will always fail to expunge people's loyalty to the traditions, beliefs and behaviours that they cleave to with a kind of familial affection.

In an age when Tacitus's abattoir of history, from Kigali to Srebrenica and now the suburbs of Damascus, is so visible that we risk becoming numb to it, it is poetry's job to bring mass savagery back to the scale of the suffering individual. In addressing both the inner human impulse to sympathy and the abrading external realities that threaten constantly to eliminate it, Heaney's poetry manages to be true to both the world and the word.

Seamus Heaney: born Castledawson 13 April 1939; died Dublin 30 August 2013

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Etch, a Sketch

Jane Merrick
 

Something wrong with the Conservative Party’s game plan

John Rentoul
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing