After the Romantics, foreign poets tend to get lost in studies of Western literature. Even among modern poets, Seamus Heaney can be overlooked because he stands apart from the rest. Instead of breaking from tradition like T. S. Eliot and E. E. Cummings, Heaney’s poetry embraces tradition, transcending time and its limits of form and style. At the same time, he uses down-to-earth stories and even irreverence to illustrate his exalted themes, allowing readers to relate and respond with laughter, nostalgia, and hope.
Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 to a farming family in Castledawson, Northern Ireland. At St. Joseph’s College he began to write with a poetry workshop, publishing his first book of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, at the age of 26. These first poems mainly centered on rural Irish life. He went on to publish Wintering Out and North, which dealt with the larger struggles of Ireland as a whole, and later Seeing Things and The Spirit Level, which covered political, natural, as well as spiritual topics. Even while Heaney’s style was evolving, his work cemented him as a pure Irish poet, respected and celebrated in his country and throughout the world. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature and many other awards, although they cannot truly illustrate his widespread influence and popularity. When Heaney died in August 2013, he was mourned by many poets who loved and admired him.
Besides poetry, Heaney also criticized and translated prose. He is well known for his translation of Beowulf, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and other medieval works. His lyrical, alliterative, synesthetic style spectacularly mirrors the qualities of Old English poetry, which uses alliteration and clever compound words instead of rhyme. “Digging,” one of his most famous poems, offers a glimpse of Heaney’s style (look for alliteration like “potatoes…picked,” “hardness…hands”) and his love for his country and cultural heritage.
By Seamus Heaney
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
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.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Although he has since been buried under the Irish dirt he wrote of, Seamus Heaney’s poems still resonate with abundance, vigor, and the “squelch and slap” of life. You can read more of his well-loved works at the Poetry Foundation, at the links below, or at your library. Enjoy!
Photo Credit: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-happy-story-for-seamus-heaney-day-1.3553491, photographed by Jack McManus
Heaney, Seamus. “Digging.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47555/digging.
“Seamus Heaney.” Poetry Archive, Arts Council England, 8 Sept. 2021, https://poetryarchive.org/poet/seamus-heaney/.
“Seamus Heaney.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/seamus-heaney.
“Seamus Heaney.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, https://poets.org/poet/seamus-heaney.