Seamus Heaney’s books make up two-thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK, an astonishing statistic that points towards the foundation of his success: he is as popular with readers as he is with the more specialised audience of critic and academic.
Heaney’s common touch is rooted in his background. He grew up the son of a Derry farmer in Castledawson. The family farm comprised a modest 50 acres, where he and his eight siblings, of which he was the eldest, spent their childhoods. The 12-year-old Heaney won a scholarship to a boarding school, St Columb’s.
At Queen’s University, Heaney enrolled on the English Language and Literature course. While he was a student, he first read Ted Hughes, a significant influence; Heaney, impressed by the way in which Hughes used his rural background to find his voice and subject, was inspired. Decades later, the two poets collaborated on the anthologies The Rattle Bag and The School Bag.
Heaney has said he didn’t seriously start writing poetry until he was 23-years-old; by the time he was 27, he was the author of his first collection, Death of a Naturalist. In the years between, he trained to be a teacher and married. On its publication in 1966, Death of a Naturalist won the Geoffrey Faber Prize, the first of many awards, including the TS Eliot Prize, two Whitbread Prizes, and the Forward Prize, a victory march that culminated in the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Death and its successor, Door into the Dark, established Heaney as the key poet of the Irish rural experience. Few poets are as sensitive to landscape, and he has spoken of his verse preserving the community and customs he grew up amongst. While that strand of Heaney’s work continues to be felt, his vision over the years has broadened its scope, including, perhaps inevitably, a spell bearing witness to Ireland’s ‘Troubles’.
The Latin and Irish Heaney learned at St Columbs, as well as the Anglo-Saxon he studied at Queen’s, has shaped the sound of Heaney’s poetry since the start of his career. There is also a strong Scottish influence at work. Heaney has given thanks for 'the twang of the Scottish tongue' audible in the Derry of his childhood. His mother was 'very devoted to singing and Scottish songs'. He read, met, and absorbed the work of MacDiarmid, MacCaig, and MacLean; more recently, he translated Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid. Heaney became an Honorary President of the Scottish Poetry Library in 2004.
Heaney moved to the Republic of Ireland in 1972, and now considers himself Irish rather than Northern Irish or British. He currently lives in Dublin. In recent years he has produced translations of Beowulf and Sophocles. He suffered a stroke in 2006 from which he fully recovered. A new sense of vulnerability penetrated the verse in Human Chain (2010) which was generally acclaimed as one of the best collections of his career.
In ‘Fosterling’, Heaney writes of 'waiting until I was nearly fifty / to credit marvels'. Readers have not been nearly so reticent to credit his marvellous poetry. In which spirit, let us admit Heaney is not merely one of the finest poets of his age, but of any age.