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Floodtide in the heart: vale Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney. Photograph: Felix Clay.

The world of letters is in shock to learn that Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s best-loved poet, died on Friday at age 74.

“The death has taken place of Seamus Heaney,” publisher Faber and Faber said on behalf of the family. “The poet and Nobel Laureate died in hospital in Dublin this morning after a short illness.”

Heaney was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

In his Nobel lecture he described his “journey into wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival - whether in one’s poetry or one’s life - turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination.”

A lifelong advocate for poetry, Heaney credited his art “for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference.”

Heaney was born a Catholic in Northern Ireland in 1939 and raised in a thatch-roofed farmhouse called Mossbawn. Drawing heavily on his rural beginnings - which would remain his spiritual home long after he left - he published his first book of poems, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966 at the age of 27.

The opening poem, “Digging,” introduces the spade-pen metaphor that would become definitive for Heaney. In its concluding lines the poet, who has been watching his father dig potatoes in the garden, rejects the life of toil known to his forefathers and announces his vocation as a poet:

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.

Heaney’s early books “wanted to be texture,” he reflected in an interview in The Paris Review, “to be all consonants, vowels and voicings, they wanted the sheer materiality of words.”

There is a sense, in reading these poems, that Heaney would prefer to write language-driven poems of love, inward reflection and deep wonderment at natural beauty: “I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells / Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss,” he recalled in “Personal Helicon.”

But Heaney was a poet afflicted with a sense of history, and soon his country had him writing with a knife.

As Northern Ireland descended into violence - “a quarter century of life waste and spirit waste” - Heaney was forced to become a poet of public as well as private life. Not infrequently his state of being was at odds with the political state.

Dublin, 1996. Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey.

“In his writing, the public and the private compete for space,” critic Helen Vendler observes, “and the tragic and the quotidian contest each other’s dominance.” The pressures of Heaney’s public role found grim expression in works such as North and Station Island.

His later works reveal a desire to write a kind of poem that could not be ensnared in cultural debate. “This has become one of the binds as well as one of the bonuses for poets in Ireland. Every poem is either enlisted or unmasked for its clandestine political affiliations.”

Alongside his work as a poet, essayist and translator, Heaney enjoyed a distinguished career as a teacher and professor. From 1985 until 2005 he spent part of each year at Harvard as a visiting professor, and from 1989 to 1994 he was professor of poetry at Oxford.

In addition to the Nobel prize his many honours included the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the EM Forster Award, the Commandeur, de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, the Saoi of Aosdána, the Golden Wreath of Poetry, the TS Eliot Prize, and The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry Lifetime Recognition Award.

Heaney’s thirteenth and final book of poems, Human Chain, was written in the aftermath of a stroke he suffered in Donegal in 2006. Forward Prize judge Ruth Padel described the winning collection as “painful, honest and delicately weighted.”

Steeped in memory, the poems are marked by loss and a sense of an impending end. In a poem called “A Herbal” the poet has stepped into the future to witness himself in past tense:

I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.

The place inside Heaney that granted him a sense of home - even if at times it was a troubled home - was the wild beauty of Ireland. At a poetry reading at Silkeborg Museum in 1996 Heaney shared a childhood memory of the peat bog, which for him was the source of all Irish memory and ancestry:

I loved the mystery and silence of the place when the work was done at the end of the day and I would stand there alone while the larks became quiet and the lapwings started calling, while a snipe would suddenly take off and disappear.

Seamus Heaney is survived by his wife, Marie, and children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.

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