Skip to main content

Seamus Heaney, poet of earth and spirit

By Stephen Burt, Special to CNN
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Sat August 31, 2013
 HAY-ON-WYE, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 29: Poet Seamus Heaney reads from his new book of poetry, District and Circle, at the Guardian Hay Festival on May 29, 2006 in Hay-On-Wye, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
HAY-ON-WYE, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 29: Poet Seamus Heaney reads from his new book of poetry, District and Circle, at the Guardian Hay Festival on May 29, 2006 in Hay-On-Wye, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephen Burt: Seamus Heaney, who died Friday, wrote poetry, literary essays, translations
  • His early works were of earth, and of the Troubles; he found fame writing about divided land
  • He says later he went south, wrote of civic, family life, dead friends, embraced the numinous
  • Burt: He became perhaps the most popular serious poet writing in English anywhere

Editor's note: Stephen Burt is the author of three poetry collections, including "Belmont," and several critical books, including "Close Calls with Nonsense," a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is Professor of English at Harvard University and lives in Belmont, Massachusetts. You can find him on Twitter at @accommodatingly.

(CNN) -- Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel laureate who died Friday at 74, will be remembered for his translations, for his literary essays, for his generous international public presence, but principally for the poetry he himself wrote. Though the Heaney of the poems could sound unsettled, or even tormented, he was in person equable, welcoming, generous; these qualities would enter the poetry too.

And he will be remembered not for one kind of poetry, but for several: He amazed even attentive admirers as he became, over his long career, in one way the opposite of his early self. His first great poems were tough, inward, tied to the soil; his last, just as Irish, were confident, sometimes gleeful, creatures of air.

Heaney began as a poet of earth. Raised in a large farming family in County Derry, Northern Ireland, educated there and in Belfast, he applied his gifts at first to the landscape where he felt at home, a place of village survivals, of un-English place names ("Broagh," "Anahorish") and eloquent modesty, comparing his poetry to ploughing, to blacksmiths' work.

Stephen Burt
Stephen Burt

He wrote in "Bogland":

Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

...


The ground itself is kind, black butter


Melting and opening underfoot.

This kind ground might swallow him up, but it might also provide him with a voice.

When parts of that ground became violent, Heaney was there. His time in Belfast as student and teacher encompassed the violent years known as the Troubles, the years of the UVF and the IRA, of bombings at funerals and British troops on the streets; Heaney became a poet of burial sites, of guilt and self-division in terse, halting stanzas.

In "Wintering Out" (1973) and in "North" (1975), he examined the violence directly and by analogy with the Bronze Age corpses that Danish archaeologists exhumed. "The Grauballe Man," he wrote, "seems to weep/ the black river of himself" ..."with the actual weight/of each hooded victim,/slashed and dumped."

Those poems made him internationally famous. Had he written nothing else, or nothing as powerful, afterwards, he would be remembered securely as the careful, anguished, self-accusing poet of a divided land.

But he went on; he changed. After "North" he moved south, to pastoral Glanmore, in the Irish Republic. There, with his wife and three children in suburban Dublin, and at Harvard, where Heaney taught for most of the 1980s and 1990s, he would find new and persuasive ways to write about enduring affection, familial and civic, and about how his own spirit could feel more free.

"Glanmore Sonnets," from "Field Work" (1979), embodies nostalgia along with a pastoral joy:

"Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground,

...
Each verse returning like the plough turned round."

(Heaney would use "Opened Ground" as the title for his 1998 Collected Poems.)

Resistant to dogma yet drawn to the numinous, Heaney depicted himself in Station Island (1983) walking a traditional route of Irish Catholic pilgrimage, meeting ghosts from the Irish literary past. One tells him:

"we are earthworms of the earth, and all that/ has gone through us is what will be our trace."

Another -- the ghost of James Joyce -- advises him differently:

"The main thing is to write/ for the joy of it ... It's time to swim/ out on your own and fill the element/ with signatures on your own frequency."

And so he did. Heaney became in his later career a great poet of the spirit lifted, a writer identified with fluency and light, with water and air, as well as with his native ground. One of the twelve-line poems in Seeing Things (1991) remembers the childhood pleasures of wading:

"Sweet transience. Flirt and splash./ Crumpled flow the sky-dipped willows trailed in."

Another retells the Irish legend of a man who fell out of a magical airborne ship, into a monastery's scriptorium, then climbed back on board, "Out of the marvelous as he had known it." Everyday work, even indoor work like writing, could be marvelous too.

Heaney recorded these marvels in sheaves of sonnets, in complex old forms such as sestinas, in an iambic pentameter whose confidence buoyed his readers too, even when -- as in his last book, "District and Circle" (2006) -- he used those soaring lines to remember dead friends. He became, if book sales are a measure, perhaps the most popular serious poet writing in English anywhere in the world. And he became determinedly international, writing verse parables derived from Eastern Europe, adapting tragic drama from ancient Greece, and translating "Beowulf" from the Anglo-Saxon.

Yet he remained connected to the particulars of the Irish spaces he knew, to his first friends in poetry (and in folk music), and to his own earlier selves.

Later poems (such as "Glanmore Revisited") would see how he had, and how he had not, changed, and would see -- in the 1990s and 2000s -- the political change that brought calm, even peace, to the counties of his birth.

"Postscript," the last poem in "Opened Ground," begins "in County Clare along the Flaggy Shore"; but it rises soon enough to a space of permission and imagination, a generous space identified with poetry itself, where "You are neither here nor there,/ A hurry through which known and strange things pass/ As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/ And catch the heart off guard and blow it open."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Burt.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT