Writer Profile: Seamus Heaney


Dates: b. 1939, d. 2013

Literary Movement: Modernism

Famous Works: Death of a Naturalist, North, Field Work, The Spirit Level


Profile: A native of Northern Ireland, Seamus Heaney was raised in County Derry, Ireland. His family moved to Bellaghy, where he attended Anahorish Primary School. At age twelve, Heaney won a scholarship to St. Columb’s College, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Derry. Heaney’s younger brother, Christopher, was killed in an accident while Heaney was studying at St. Columb’s; the death greatly affected the young man.


In 1957, Heaney enrolled at Queen’s University Belfast to study English Literature and Language. Here, he found a copy of Ted Hughes’s Lupercal, which inspired him to try his hand at poetry. After graduating in 1961 with honors, he went on to St. Thomas’ secondary Intermediate School. Here, Heaney was introduced to the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, and with the help of school headmaster Michael McLaverty, he began to publish his own work. In 1966, Heaney published his first major volume of poetry, entitled Death of a Naturalist. The collection was met with critical acclaim and won several awards. It remains Heaney’s most popular publication.


As a poety from Northern Ireland, Heaney used poetry to reflect on the often-violent political struggles plaguing his country. In young adulthood, he sought to place ongoing Irish troubles into a broader historical frame, embracing the idea of a “general human situation” in his collections Wintering Out and North. Some reviewers and scholars consider Heaney an apologist and mythologizer. Later in life, Heaney began to translate, starting with the Irish Lyric poem Buile Suibhne and later becoming known for his translation of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf in 2000. He later moved into prose writing, using language to directly address the concerns expressed obliquely in his poetry.


Seamus Heaney was the author of over 20 volumes of poetry and criticism, and he edited several widely-used anthologies. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, taught at Harvard University, and served as the Oxford Professor of Poetry. He died in 2013.


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