Today in Literary History – April 13, 1939 – Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney is born

Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, one of the major poets of the 20th century, was born on April 13, 1939, in Northern Ireland. He was born at home in a farmhouse, the first of nine children. Heaney’s family was Catholic and he was raised in a predominantly Protestant community.

His poetry often dealt with Ireland’s rural past and its heritage of myths and legends. He also dealt with the history of Ireland’s religious and political conflicts in the long years of The Troubles. Blake Morrison in his book on Heaney has written that Heaney is “that rare thing, a poet rated highly by critics and academics yet popular with ‘the common reader.'”

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As a teenager Heaney moved to Belfast to study at Queen’s University where he became a lecturer and began writing poetry, publishing his first major collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966. Heaney also taught part-time as a visiting professor at Harvard University for two decades as well as being The Oxford University Professor of Poetry for five years.

He continued to make his home base in Ireland however, living most of his life in Dublin, where he was the head of the English department at Carysfort College starting in 1976.

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Heaney’s books, especially his Selected Poems 1965–1975 in 1980 and New Selected Poems 1966–1987 a decade later, were hugely popular with the public. At one point his books made up fully two thirds of sales of books of poetry in the UK by a living poet.

Later in his life Heaney became known for his sensitive poetic translations. He began with a translation of a medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne, which he published in 1984 as Sweeney Astray.

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Heaney’s most famous translation is of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf in 1999. I have read several translations of the poem and Heaney’s version is my favourite. It is both lyrical and viscerally immediate and completely compelling.

Malcolm Jones, Newsweek’s culture critic wrote that “Heaney’s own poetic vernacular—muscular language so rich with the tones and smell of earth that you almost expect to find a few crumbs of dirt clinging to his lines—is the perfect match for the Beowulf poet’s Anglo-Saxon…As retooled by Heaney, Beowulf should easily be good for another millennium.”

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I saw Heaney read from his work in Toronto, at the International Festival of Authors in 1995, the year he won the Nobel Prize for literature. It was a revelation in some ways to hear his poems in his own accent and flowing rhythm. He was a wonderful reader and his appearances were often sold out due to his fan base of young, aspiring poets known affectionately as Heaneyboppers.

Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006, quipping “blessed are the pacemakers” after being fitted with the device. He died in 2013 at the age of 74.

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