Heaney, Seamus

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Heaney, Seamus

Heaney, Seamus (1939- ) Irish poet, translator, and essayist

A child of the struggle to free Ireland from British dominion, Seamus Heaney has written works that testify to the paradox of violence and dissension in a bucolic green land. Orphaned in boyhood, he grew up in rural County Derry 40 miles northwest of Belfast in Northern Ireland. On scholarship, he studied English, Irish, and Latin at St. Columb's College in Londonderry. With a degree in English language and literature from Queen's University, Belfast, he joined the faculty at St. Joseph's Teacher Training College, submitted essays to magazines, and married the poet and mythographer Marie Devlin. In 1972, he moved to Wicklow in southern Ireland. A recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in literature, he has lectured at Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, and Oxford.

With a simplicity and craftsmanship sometimes compared to the American poet Robert Frost, Heaney has woven into outstanding works—such as “Triptych,” “The Strand at Lough Beg,” and “Casualty”—a paradox of ancestral pride and willingness to compromise. In “After a Killing,” modeled on Thomas Hardy's “The Man He Killed,” Heaney eulogizes young men slain in the ongoing clash of Catholic against Protestant and loyalist against republican. In writing his musings on bog corpses, “The Tollund Man” and “The Grauballe Man,” he reviewed the evidence of past efforts at empire—Viking, Anglo-Saxon, and British—that crop up in anthropological digs on rural turf. These poems of ancient bodies found in bogs suit the political quagmire that gobbled young energies and lives during the “troubles,” the protracted conflict between British and Irish from the late 1960s until the Belfast Accord of 1998.

For a sonnet on farmer-soldiers, Heaney chose the scythe as a symbol of the agrarian resister facing cavalry and cannon in barley fields. In “Digging,” a popular poem from Death of a Naturalist (1966), his imagery compares verse writing to peat cutting, a domestic task that occupied his grandfather and father. Like the Roman poets HORACE and VIRGIL, Heaney takes comfort in the cyclical rounds of planting, tending, and harvesting and in the one- on-one pleasures of friendship and sharing plates of fresh fare.

Poetry as Translation

In 1999, Heaney resurrected Viking ruthlessness, vanity, and melancholy in his translation of Beowulf (A.D. 800), an Iron Age heroic epic, from Anglo- Saxon. The text dramatizes the quasihistorical feats of a Geat warrior of Gotaland (present-day southern Sweden) who aids the Dane King Hrothgar in quelling Grendel, a night-stalking beast. In the introduction, the poet notes that Beowulf voices the Scandic principles of honor as his personal code. First, he states the value of might over grief: “It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (Heaney 2007, xiii). Bringing the concept of battlefield carnage down to the individual, he exhorts, “Let whoever can, / win glory before death,” a pagan grasp on earthly life as the only reality (xiii). For the glory hunter Beowulf, the dismemberment and decapitation of Grendel underwater are the source of lasting fame, a he- man remembrance “as wide as the wind's home / as the sea around cliffs” (xiv). Nature-based imagery elevates Grendel to a natural phenomenon and his quelling on a par with subduing a force as unpredictable as a tornado. The poet amplifies the bloodbath with “loathsome upthrows / and overturnings / Of waves and gore and wound-slurry” (57).

Heaney's wording of the epic achieves a balance in the falling action. The approach of death shifts the mood from heroic to elegaic and prophetic. As the elderly warrior sits on a cliff like a wraith to await the fire dragon: “He was sad at heart, / unsettled yet ready, sensing his death. / His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain” (xvi). In death, Beowulf rejoins nature. From his pyre, the smoke carries his remains heavenward just as the sea brought him to land. The funereal coda takes a realistic measure of the era in terms of wartime devastation: A female mourner unleashes “a wild litany / of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded, / enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles, slavery and abasement” (xvii). Critics read into Heaney's virulent images the scarring of Ireland by centuries of British imperialism.


Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition. Translated by Seamus Heaney. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

Heaney, Seamus. Death of a Naturalist. London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

----- . Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998.

Kabir, Ananya Jahansra, and Deanne Williams.

Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Kennedy-Andrews, Elmer. The Poetry of Seamus Heaney. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.