Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Seamus Heaney

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
X
Illustration You have already viewed an explanation Register now and access this and thousands of further explanations for free
English Literature

Seamus Heaney is one of the best-known poets hailing from Ireland. Seamus Heaney wrote numerous books and poems about Irish life, farming, and landscapes. Seamus Heaney lived most of his life in Ireland and his nationality was the basis for much of his poetry.

Seamus Heaney: life

Let's look at Heaney's background.

Early life and education

Seamus Heaney was born on the 13th April 1939 in County Derry in Northern Ireland. He was the oldest of nine children and was born in the family farmhouse of Mossbawn. When Heaney was fourteen (in 1953), his family relocated to a farm in the village of Bellaghy. Heaney's family were Catholic farmers, so he grew up in a rural environment. This childhood experience in the countryside would be a key theme in Heaney's poetry as much of his work is based there.

When Heaney was twelve, he began attending St. Columb's College, a Catholic boarding school in the city of Derry. At St. Columb's, Heaney would be taught in English, Latin, and Irish, which influenced for his later poetry. In 1953, while Heaney was at school, his four-year-old brother Christopher was killed in a car accident. This experience would become the basis of Heaney's 1966 poem, 'Midterm Break',

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

Seamus Heaney would go on to study English Literature at the Queen's University of Belfast (QUB). There, he studied Anglo Saxon Literature and was also introduced to the poetry of Ted Hughes, Robert Frost, and Patrick Kavanagh. While in Belfast, Heaney joined the Belfast Writers' Group, where he met contemporaries Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. Following his time at QUB, Heaney trained to become a teacher and during this period met and married his wife, Marie Devlin.

Career

Let's look at his career.

1966-1987

In 1966, Heaney published his first collection of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, with Faber & Faber. The collection was met with success and widespread critical acclaim. In the following years, Heaney would work as a lecturer at QUB, and also release his second poetry collection, Door into the Dark, in 1969.

This period would see Heaney work as a lecturer and teacher at Berkeley College (California), Queen's University of Belfast, and Carysfort College, Dublin. He would also release works such as Wintering Out (1972), North (1975), Field Work (1979), and Station Island (1984). Heaney garnered much success during this period and quickly became one of Ireland's most prominent literary voices.

The Troubles

One of the defining points of Irish history in the 20th century was a civil conflict called 'The Troubles'. The Troubles took place in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998 and was an ethnic-nationalist conflict.

During the period much of the violence took place between the Loyalist community (who were majority Protestant) and the Republican community (who were majority Catholic). Approximately 3,000 civilians were killed in Northern Ireland during this conflict.

During this period, Heaney received criticism from some of his Northern Irish contemporaries, as his work did not address the conflict occurring in his country. Heaney's poetry and books focused instead on rural life and identity instead of the violence itself. This was partially addressed in his 1975 poem, 'Whatever you say, say nothing', which was written about Northern Irish culture and language during the Troubles.

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,Subtle discrimination by addressesWith hardly an exception to the rule

In 1981, Heaney joined the Board of Directors for the Field Day Theatre Company. He would go on to write for the troupe as well as provide input on its operations.

Field Day Theatre Company

In 1980, the Field Day Theatre Company was established by playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea in Derry, Northern Ireland. The company originally aimed to create a major theatre group for Northern Ireland, however, this idea quickly expanded to become more political. One of the founding ideas of Field Day was that it would serve as a cross-community project to develop relations between Catholics and Protestants across Northern Ireland. The company's first performance was Brian Friel's Translations (1981).

1988-2000

Heaney spent five years from 1989 to 1994 as a Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He also worked as the Poet in Residence at Harvard University, where he became a tenured professor. During this time, Heaney split his time between Ireland, England and America.

In 1995, Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was given the prize for "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalted everyday miracles and the living past" (Nobel Prize for Literature 1995). Heaney would be the fourth Irishman to win the award, following George Bernard Shaw, W.B Yeats, and Samuel Beckett.

In the period between 1988 and 2000, Seamus Heaney published a play, The Cure of Troy (1991) and two volumes of poetry entitled, Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996).

2000-2013

In 2006, while at his friend Brian Friel’s home, Heaney had a stroke that left the poet partially paralysed on his left side. This incident became the basis of his poem ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ which featured in his final poetry collection, Human Chain (2010).

Death

Seamus Heaney died aged 74 in 2013. The poet died following a short illness after he was admitted to the hospital for a medical procedure.

Seamus Heaney: poems and books

Here are some of Heaney's best-known poems.

'Punishment'

I can see her drownedbody in the bog,the weighing stone,the floating rods and boughs.

'Punishment' was written in 1975 and first published in the collection North (1975). This is a lyric poem that is divided into eleven quatrains, with no set rhyme scheme. The poem is split into two sections, as the first half details the discovery of a bog body in Germany in 1951. The body is identified as a fourteen-year-old girl, who had been killed for committing adultery. The second half of the poem compares this brutal killing to the violence of the Troubles. Heaney uses the two different time frames to compare the brutal acts.

'Tollund Man'

Some day I will go to Aarhus*To see his peat-brown head,The mild pods of his eye-lids,His pointed skin cap.

'Tollund Man' was included in Seamus Heaney's 1972 poetry collection, Wintering Out. The poem is divided into three parts, with the first section detailing the speaker's wish to visit the bog body that was found in the Netherlands. The second section continues his idea, as it discusses how the speaker fantasises about resurrecting the man and asking him to revive anyone who died during the Troubles. The poem finishes with the speaker imagining himself taking the same journey as the Tollund Man, and feeling familiar with the environment. In this poem, Heaney explores themes of violence, history and religion.

Did You Know? 'Bog bodies' are corpses that have been naturally preserved in peat bogs! They can be found in The Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland, with many dating back to the 1700s!

'Out of the Bag'

All of us came in Doctor Kerlin's bag.

He'd arrive with it, disappear to the room

And by the time he'd reappear to wash

'Out of the Bag' was published in his collection, Collected Poems (2013). The poem has four parts, with each stanza comprising three lines (tercets). This part of the poem discusses birth from the perspective of a child, with the young speaker imagining that babies come from the doctor's bag.

The second section uses metaphors and analogies of Ancient Greece to discuss medicine. The speaker here is more mature than he was in the first section. The third section of the poem is set in the 1950s, and continues the Ancient GreeK imagery. The final segment of the poem returns to the setting of the first section, as the speaker sees his mother and new sibling. This poem centres on themes of childhood, life and family.

Beowulf (1999)

Whichever one death fellsmust deem it a just judgement by God.

Seamus Heaney produced translations as well as poems. His most famous piece of translation was of the story of Beowulf (1999). Beowulf (975-1025) is an Anglo Saxon text which tells the story of the titular hero, and how he defeated three different monsters. It is widely viewed as one of the most important pieces of literature to come from the Anglo Saxon period. The story was originally written in Old English and Heaney spent much of the 1990s translating the text. Heaney's translation of Beowulf (975-1025) has been praised for its use of music and language, while also keeping close to the original source. An excerpt from Beowulf (1999) can be found above).

Seamus Heaney: themes and quotes

Some of the main themes and important quotes...

Nature

Nature is a key theme in much of Seamus Heaney's poetry. His childhood in rural Derry influenced how he depicted the countryside in his work, and rural landscapes became a key image in Heaney's works. Nature is presented in Heaney's work through imagery, metaphors and analogies.

Key Works and Quotes

Punishment

I can see her drownedbody in the bog,the weighing stone,the floating rods and boughs.

Peninsula

I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smellsOf waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

Harvest Bow

Into an evening of long grass and midges,Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,An auction notice on an outhouse wall—You with a harvest bow in your lapel,

Identity

Identity is also a key theme throughout Heaney's work. Seamus Heaney's was born in Northern Ireland, and wrote much of his works during The Troubles, and identity shaped much of his work. Heaney uses the imagery of Irish life to universalise themes of identity, family and nature.

Key Works and Quotes

Punishment

who would connivein civilized outrageyet understand the exactand tribal, intimate revenge.

Tollund Man

I will feel lost,Unhappy and at home.

Out of the Bag

The room I came from and the rest of us all came from

Stays pure reality where I stand alone,

Standing the passage of time, and she's asleep

Seamus Heaney: impact

Seamus Heaney had a significant impact on Irish life and literature. His writings were centred on Irish life, and in doing so, Heaney brought Irish culture to the wider world. Heaney's few poems focusing on The Troubles also had a great impact on the country.

Works such as 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing' (1975) and 'The Tollund Man' (1972) indicated Heaney as an advocate for peace in the North of Ireland. These works also emphasised the effects of The Troubles on Northern Ireland. Heaney's work has had a lasting impact due to how it universalises specific themes of war, Irish culture and rural life.

Seamus Heaney - Key takeaways

  • Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in Mossbawn, Derry, Northern Ireland.
  • Heaney was raised in rural Northern Ireland, before attending university in the country's capital, Belfast.
  • Many of Heaney's poems centre around Irish landscapes and life, and some reference The Troubles.
  • Themes such as nature, and identity can be found in Heaney's poetry.
  • In 1994, Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Seamus Heaney died in 2013, following a short illness.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was born in County Derry in Northern Ireland in 1939.

Heaney died in 2013 following a short illness after entering the hospital for a medical procedure. 

Heaney attended high school at St Columb's College, before going to the Queen's University of Belfast.

Yes, Seamus Heaney spoke Irish as he was taught the language while at St Columb's College.

Seamus Heaney was a famous poet and translator who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. 

Final Seamus Heaney Quiz

Question

When was Seamus Heaney born?

Show answer

Answer

1939

Show question

Question

True or False: Seamus Heaney's family were Catholics. 

Show answer

Answer

True! Seamus Heaney's family were Catholics. 

Show question

Question

What age was Heaney when his family moved to Bellaghy?

Show answer

Answer

14

Show question

Question

What county did Seamus Heaney grow up in?

Show answer

Answer

Derry

Show question

Question

Where did Seamus Heaney attend university? 

Show answer

Answer

Heaney attended Queen's University of Belfast (QUB). 

Show question

Question

Was Seamus Heaney interested in Ancient Greece?

Show answer

Answer

Yes, Heaney was interested in Ancient Greece, as it is frequently referenced in his poetry. 

Show question

Question

What was the name of Seamus Heaney's first poetry collection?

Show answer

Answer

Death of a Naturalist. 

Show question

Question

True or False: Seamus Heaney's poem 'Whatever You, Say Nothing' is about the Falklands War?

Show answer

Answer

False! The poem is about The Troubles.

Show question

Question

What theatre company did Seamus Heaney serve on the board of?

Show answer

Answer

He served on the board of directors for The Field Day Theatre Company. 

Show question

Question

In what year did Seamus Heaney win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Show answer

Answer

1995

Show question

Question

Including Seamus Heaney, how many Irish people have won the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Show answer

Answer

4

Show question

Question

When did Seamus Heaney die?

Show answer

Answer

2013

Show question

Question

What are two key themes in Seamus Heaney's work?

Show answer

Answer

Identity

Show question

Question

'Punishment' and 'Tollund Man' feature corpses found in what setting?

Show answer

Answer

Peat bogs

Show question

Question

Where does the speaker in 'Out of the Bag' imagine that babies come from?

Show answer

Answer

The doctor's bag. 

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Seamus Heaney quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.