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Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 into a Catholic family with a farming background. Their fifty acre farm, named Mossbawn, was located in County Derry, Northern Ireland. The first of nine children, it was anticipated that Seamus might follow in his father's footsteps as a farmer and cattle dealer. Heaney left Mossbawn in 1951 to pursue his secondary education as a boarder on scholarship at St Columb's College in Londonderry. It was at St Columb's College that Heaney was exposed to a variety of literature including Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth and Keats, as well as studying Latin and Gaelic. Two years later, the rest of Heaney's family left Mossbawn but his years there had already established a firm foundation and devotion within Heaney for the Irish countryside and his forefathers' background. Compounded with his broad academic background it became obvious that language was Heaney's forte and he was unlikely to become a farmer. In 1957 Heaney was awarded a scholarship to Queen's University in Belfast. He studied here until 1961, graduating with a first-class honours degree in English language and literature. (Between The Lines, 2004).
Heaney can be seen to have drawn inspiration for his work from both early and lifelong influences, primarily the childhood building blocks of language and environmental surroundings. "His poetry shows a powerful devotion to the earth, particularly to the landscape and soil of his native Northern Ireland. But Heaney is equally dedicated to language." (Gilbert, 2000, p.130). Not only is Heaney devoted to his subject matter and sources of stimulation, his poems are also seen to be very inspirational and relevant to general life issues. His connection to nature and the rural areas of Ireland are quite extraordinary. This land-language-heritage triangle is the focus of Heaney's brilliance, though it is interesting to note this Irish focus that ensures "few teachers and students are likely to study his verse since it is difficult for young and non-Irish readers" and "Heaney writes as a commentator, not as a participant" (English Teachers' Association, 1992, p.1-2). Heaney writes about and visualises his subject matter but he does so in numerous works as if it were a running commentary. Very few of his poems include himself directly but many of them are about the influences of Ireland or literary memorials to people he has encountered.
Perhaps one of his most famous poems, 'Digging', represents his ancestral background and the different career path Heaney took as a writer, not a farmer like his father. "Heaney's writing is full of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing." (Gilbert, 2000, p.130). This is clearly shown in the second last stanza of 'Digging' when the poet describes the sensory experience of the memories that are triggered by the sound outside of his window. "The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge / Through living roots awaken in my head. / But I've no spade to follow men like them." (Heaney, 1990, p.2). And immediately afterwards, in his final stanza, Heaney identifies himself as a writer, with a different set of tools to his forefathers, yet equally influential and significant. "Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I'll dig with it." (Heaney, 1990, p.2). Heaney considers himself to be able to do with his pen what his father did with a spade, that is, get a job done to make a living. This poem is significant to Heaney's discovery of where he fits in to his family tree and into life itself. He made the comment "This was the first place where I felt I had done more than make an arrangement of words: I felt I had let down a shaft into real life." (Heaney, 1980, p.8).
In 'Death of a Naturalist' Heaney's command of language comes through and it is easy to recognise the emulation of a childlike inner voice that Heaney has. With this voice he describes for the reader the flax-dam in the town land of his childhood and the knowledge that his teacher used to share about frogs and their lifecycle. He uses more repulsive and onomatopoeic words such as slobber, clotted, croaked, slap, plop and farting in this poem that make it feel like it has a very ten-year-old-boy tone. The amazement and wonder that a child would feel is conveyed near the start of the poem "There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies, / But best of all was the warm thick slobber / Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water" (Heaney, 1990, p.3). It was the jellied frogspawn that Heaney collected in "jampotfuls" to wait and watch as they developed into tadpoles. He was wary of one hot day when he approached the flax-dam and felt a different atmosphere, filled with different sounds. "The slap and plop were obscene threats ... / The great slime kings / Were gathered there for vengeance" (Heaney, 1990, p.4). Heaney the boy was worried that the "slime kings" were seeking vengeance for the vast amounts of frogspawn that he had taken captive for his personal pleasure. The vivid imagery Heaney uses throughout this poem is an excellent example of the density that Heaney can give to language. This particular work was once described as "A poem dense with the mucky thickness that is often the trademark of a Heaney poem...reading Heaney is like trudging through clay." (MacBeth, 1979, p.345). His recollection of the connection he shared with this particular ecosystem is extraordinarily unique.
Heaney treats nature as a living entity, not just a variety of living things. His poems portray nature as a ruthless force that tries to damage mankind while trying to protect other forms of life. This again shows how influential Heaney's farming background is to his poetry, his mind has never really left Mossbawn. A farmer's attitude towards nature is one of constant conflict as they try to produce from the land to get by.
Heaney developed a fascination around 1970 for the Iron Age bodies that had been found in bogs throughout Ireland and Denmark. "On his seeing some of the photographs [of the bog people]...Heaney's imagination was stirred. The bog which had been a part of the poet's childhood world now acquired a new significance." (Maguire, 1986, p.9). These ancient bodies were sacrifices of a time long ago and provided Heaney with a source of inspiration that contained links to both Ireland and the land's history with a slightly ghastly and violent quality. Some of Heaney's darker work comes out in collections such as North where his 'Bog Poems' are included. Again, the link that the land can have to the past, present and future is a subject that Heaney thrives on. In 'Punishment' from North Heaney "sees in the corpse of a ritually sacrificed woman an echo of the Catholic women in Northern Ireland who are tarred and chained to their front porches for dating British soldiers." (Pellegrino, 2003). There is a theme of revenge in both contexts of the poem, and in both cases a punishment is dealt, hence the title. This thought is summed up in the final stanza of this poem, "who would connive / in civilized outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge." (Heaney, 1990, p.72).
The presence and fear of conflict and violence are a part of Irish history. Whether it is from ancient times or from around the time of 'The Irish Troubles', it is an ever present part of Ireland and consequently makes it in to Heaney's poetry. Heaney's most obviously political work, again from North, can be seen in 'Whatever You Say Say Nothing'. He writes of Northern Ireland, "O land of password, handgrip wink and nod, / Of open minds as open as a trap, / Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks," (Heaney, 1990, p.72). 'The Irish Troubles' are a subject he touches on briefly, again trying to convey subtle political commentary with his pen. "Violence, human as well as natural is a significant issue in many of the poems." (English Teachers' Association, 1992, p.4).
Seamus Heaney's poetry has an immense amount of himself and his history poured into it. Countless numbers of his characters and stories come from personal experiences. His poetry has an uncanny ability to describe the human experience and capture true emotion. Heaney has received many prestigious awards including The Lannan Literary Award for Poetry in 1990 and The Nobel Prize in Literature 1995 "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past". His writing constantly displays his ability to fill poems up with occurrences that readers can readily receive and comprehend. Although no well-written poem should exactly portray the experience that inspired it, Heaney has extremely accurate communication skills that allow readers to familiarise themselves with the writing and feel the mystery of the story told in each poem. His poetry is able to create exciting settings and is often delivered in short statements that stimulate and involve the reader. Heaney has humbly spent years developing this ability, not for fame or recognition but because he enjoys it.
"Only the most gifted poets can start from their peculiar origin in a language, a landscape, a nation, and from these enclosures rise to impersonal authority. Seamus Heaney has this kind of power, and it appears constantly...Nationality becomes landscape; landscape becomes language; language becomes genius." (Ehrenpreis, 1981, p.45). Heaney brings personal and Irish history and imagery together to form an entirely unique and insightful style of writing. Heaney is able to draw inspiration from an endless amount of imaginative sources, some closer to his heart than others, and create engrossing poetry that is a reading experience, making the person reading it feel as if they were part of the poetry. He has achieved the art of entertaining, informing and enlightening readers and has produced countless pieces of literature that appeal to numerous select audiences. The significant messages in his poetry evoke a range of emotions and create a lasting impact in the reader's mind, which is why it is such a success today.
Between The Lines. 'A Note on Seamus Heaney' in Interviews with Poets, http://www.interviews-with-poets.com/seamus-heaney/heaney-note.html (23 August 2004)
Ehrenpreis, I. 1981. 'Digging In' in The New York Review of Books. Vol. XXVIII, No. 15, October 8.
English Teachers' Association. 1992. Seamus Heaney: Poetry. Sydney.
Gilbert, R. 2000. The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book, Inc.
Heaney, S. 1980. Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978. London: Faber and Faber.
Heaney, S. 1990. New Selected Poems 1966-1987. London: Faber and Faber.
MacBeth, G. 1979. Poetry 1900 to 1975. Essex. Longman in conjunction with Faber and Faber.
Maguire, A. 1986. York Notes on Selected Poems - Seamus Heaney. Essex: Longman York Press.
Pellegrino, J. 'Biography' in Seamus Heaney, http://www.ibiblio.org/dykki/poetry/heaney/heaney.bio.html (23 August 2004)
Donoghue, D. 1984. 'A Mad Muse' in The New Republic. Vol. 190, No. 3615, April 30.
Faber and Faber. 'Seamus Heaney' in Authors at Faber, http://www.faber.co.uk/xview_author.cgi?author_id=6483&genre=3&subgenre=0 (23 August 2004) [Source of cover image]
Lannan Foundation. 'Seamus Heaney With Dennis O'Driscoll' in Readings and Conversations (PDF Document), http://www.lannan.org/_authors/heaney/SHeaney_Conversation.pdf (13 September 2004)
Marsh, F. 1986. 'Seamus Heaney at Harvard' in Poetry Review (London), Journal of the Poetry Society. Vol. 75, No. 4.