Recognized by many as the greatest Irish poet since Yeats—and considered by some to be the most important poet of the modern age—Seamus Heaney has died at the age of 74 after suffering a brief illness. Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, worked in a language colored by struggle and suffering, but also filled with a beauty particular to the Irish rural life. Though he avoided political statements in both his life and his work, he also wrote evocatively of the rebellions and conflicts that ravaged the North, in a way that was embraced by both Catholics and Protestants. His work was so universally loved and uniquely accessible that the fans who swarmed his readings were sometimes called “Heaneyboppers,” making him one of the few poets of our time (indeed, maybe one of its only poets) to earn a rock-star following for putting pen to paper.
Heaney broke wide with the publication of The Death Of A Naturalist, a collection of poems inspired by his own childhood, a subject he’d return to again and again. Its opening poem, “Digging,” found Heaney reflecting on his father and grandfather working diligently in the potato farms, concluding, “I’ve no spade to follow men like them,” and vowing to do his own “digging” with his pen. And indeed, he spent the ensuing decades unearthing painful memories both personal and political—from “Mid-Term Break” and its heartbreaking, unsparingly detailed portrait of his own younger brother, who died at the age of four, to “Requiem For The Croppies,” a sonnet commemorating the lives lost in the Irish rebellion of 1798.
Still, Heaney studiously avoided being made into a mouthpiece for Northern Ireland’s political strife, his most overtly “political” moves being when he rejected the offer to become poet laureate, and his public objection to being included in an anthology of British poetry. And while he did write of the conflict's violence, and of the responsibility to representing this Northern Irish identity that was so often thrust upon him, more than anything he was fascinated with the cultural upheaval afforded by language, its ability to transcend and transform mundane reality into a setting for epic romance and philosophical quandary.
A classicist who often layered in reference to Greek and Celtic mythology, Heaney was also an acclaimed translator (his 1999 reworking of Beowulf is highly regarded), and served as a professor at both Harvard and Oxford. Yet, like his works, he always remained easily accessible to the common man, embracing radio and television in his poetry presentations, and in 2003, even memorably praising Eminem as one of the modern age’s most exciting new voices, saying, “He has created a sense of what is possible.” That all-encompassing attitude and love of the power of language in any form brought millions of academics and ordinary people alike to Heaney, whether it was through his poems or plays like The Burial At Thebes, and made him arguably the best-known and most-read living poet in a time when poetry has more or less slipped off the cultural radar.
Fittingly, his impact can be measured in words, such as in the oft-quoted lines of “The Cure At Troy,” whose subtle calls for peace have been invoked by many a politician searching for the perfect turn of phrase to inspire hope in a seemingly hopeless world.
A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.