Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
Born in 1939, Heaney grew up in a large Roman Catholic family on a farm in County Derry, near Belfast, in Northern Ireland. His rural upbringing provided him with an appreciation for the small details of rural life and for the land; these qualities would come to mark his poetry vividly. While he lived in a largely Protestant area that experienced the violent “troubles” between Catholic and Protestant militants, Heaney never advocated strongly for the Catholic cause in his poetry, an omission for which he was sometimes criticized.
Heaney began publishing poetry as a student at Queen’s University in Belfast, but his career as a poet really began with the 1966 publication of his first book of poems, Death of a Naturalist. Over the course of Heaney’s career, he taught English at a number of Irish colleges, was Poet in Residence at Harvard University, and was Professor of Poetry at Oxford.
After moving to Dublin, in The Republic of Ireland, in 1972, Heaney wrote his two arguably most political volumes of poetry, North (1975) and Field Work (1979). One of his best known and loved volumes, The Haw Lantern, was published after his mother’s death in 1987. Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, cited by the committee for his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” In 1999, he published a critically lauded translation of Beowulf. In 2006, he suffered a minor stroke; he documented this experience in his 2010 collection of poems Human Chain.
“The Tollund Man,” published in Heaney’s 1972 collection Wintering Out, is the first of Heaney’s famous “bog poems” inspired by the mummified bodies found by archeologists in Jutland. Heaney felt an affinity with the bodies as Northern Ireland is characterized by a number of bogs. This volume of poems is seen as one in which Heaney is attempting to work out the significance in his own life of the political troubles in his native Northern Ireland. “The Haw Lantern” is the titular poem of Heaney’s 1987 collection published after his mother’s death.
Consider while reading:
- In Ireland, the haw fruit is a symbol of endurance and defiance of harsh winters. How does the poet use the fruit as a political symbol or a comment on the Catholic-Protestant violence?
- What is the story of Diogenes, and how does Heaney employ it in “The Haw Lantern”?
- In “The Tollund Man,” how does Heaney draw a parallel between the ritualized killing of the man in the bog with victims of violence in Northern Ireland?
- How does Heaney use the poem “Tollund Man” to explore themes of fate and martyrdom?
Written by Anita Turlington