Belfast Telegraph

Seamus Heaney: His legacy will be the gift of understanding our time

Greatest Irish poet since Yeats honed a craft to perfection

By Diarmaid Ferriter

Seamus Heaney won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature for works that were described as having "lyrical beauty and ethical depth" and which "exalt everyday miracles and the living past".

In being awarded such an accolade, he joined three other Irish writers who have received the world's most prestigious literary award: WB Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925) and Samuel Beckett (1969).

For Heaney, the Nobel Prize was the culmination of a series of prestigious awards and distinguished appointments. In 1989 he was elected for a five-year period as a professor of poetry at Oxford University and later worked as professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard University. He also worked as a translator and in 2003 won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism.

Born in Derry in 1939, Heaney has often been hailed as Ireland's greatest poet since W B Yeats -- and with much justification. He joined the staff of Queen's University Belfast in 1966 and a few years later was asked by Ulick O'Connor if the teaching career he had embarked upon would harm his poetry. He replied: "When I teach, I give away only my soft side. I keep the dangerous side for writing."

His initial reaction to the Troubles was reflected in the collection 'Wintering Out', published in 1972. Heaney maintained that his generation of writers felt it was not necessary to deal directly with political issues because "the subtleties and tolerances of their art were precisely what they had to contribute to the coarseness and intolerances of public life".

But it was not quite as straightforward as that for the Ulster poets, including Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and James Simmons, who had come to prominence with Heaney in the 1960s. While initially the outbreak of the Troubles may have united them in their assertions that poetry need not "serve social commitments" and should approach violence indirectly through analogy and metaphor, the ongoing northern crisis, and their own rivalries, made it difficult for them to maintain close relationships.

Shedding the 'Belfast group identity' was a necessary step towards autonomy. For Heaney, this involved a move to Wicklow in 1972. He felt he had passed probation and was now entering vocation as a poet.

His reputation as a poet of great distinction was secured in 1975 with the publication of 'North', seen as a defining moment in relation to poetic development. The language he used was filled with violence but was anything but uncontrolled; history and cultural divisions also loomed large.

Looking back on that collection more than 30 years later, he asserted: "The poems in 'North' were grimly executed and I really like them because they are odd and hard and contrary." 'Station Island' (1984) likewise engaged with the haunting ghosts of history but also the theme of the independence of the artist.

The range of his work and his substantial output cemented his reputation and status and his work was frequently used in relation to assessments of the changing political landscape, most obviously seen in the use of a line from his play 'The Cure at Troy' (1990) -- "let hope and history rhyme" -- which was frequently invoked during the 1990s peace process.

Like Yeats before him, who also lived through a time of great political convulsions, his words will be quoted well into the future to try and capture some of the traumas, triumphs and identity issues of a complex time politically. Reflecting on the 1994 IRA ceasefire, he recalled: "I do believe, whatever happens, a corner was turned historically in 1994. We've passed from the atrocious to the messy, but the messy is a perfectly okay place to live."

Heaney was humble, unpretentious and hugely generous in making himself so accessible. He could also be full of divilment and was well capable of the barbed comment or put-down when he felt it was called for. In relation to the time he spent teaching at the Catholic teacher training college in Carysfort in Dublin from 1976, he suggested the students and teachers there were "a hell of a lot more emancipated from Catholic practice at the same time as many a star in UCD".

He was open about the impact the stroke he suffered a few years ago had on his confidence and comfort in performing, but he continued to do it, a measure of his commitment to his role as a public intellectual and his determination not to disappoint the audiences that turned out in such numbers. For him, the sound the words made was crucial, which was why he was such a captivating reader.

He also had a phenomenal knowledge of other poets, especially those who influenced him greatly, such as Robert Frost.

Most interviews with him were littered with a huge range of literary references and he was also an expert on the poets of Eastern Europe.

He also made an impact as a translator, most famously by translating into English the famous Anglo-Saxon poem 'Beowulf' (1999), which was composed towards the end of the first millennium. The translation won the Whitbread Award as the best book of 1999.

Scholars from all parts of the world have spent decades trying to assess Heaney's impact, method and legacy and the quality and evenness of his output. Their studies range from his use of images and symbols, visions of education, religion, societal conflict, regionalism, international dialogues, memory and love. What they all boil down to is a celebration of and debate about the imagination and how a gift was turned into a craft that was honed to an exceptional and sometimes controversial level.

Whatever about the belief in the "natural abilities" of a poet of his stature, Heaney was clear on this point: "You have to work." That was what he did, continuously, for over 50 years.

In 2008, he recalled: "Eagerness, excitement and a sense of change came over me when I began to write poetry in earnest in 1962. So I've always associated the moment of writing with a moment of lift, of joy, of unexpected reward."

Over the decades, many readers of that writing also felt they had been rewarded. By continually reinventing his language, by exploring and wandering poetically, he not only excelled at his craft, but generated great pride in his achievements.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD

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