In 1995 Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy praised him “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”
Born in 1939 in County Derry, the eldest of nine children, Heaney was raised on his parents’ farm in Northern Ireland. His poetry is deeply marked by both his rural upbringing and his experience of political unrest. “He has often written of the poet as a kind of farmer,” notes The New York Times, “as though Ireland’s wet peat were a storehouse of images and memories.” But violence is always intruding on this bucolic life, as he makes clear in his famous poem “Digging”: “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.”
Heaney’s first poetry collections, Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door Into the Dark (1969), earned him international acclaim. He has gone on to publish numerous collections of poetry, three works of criticism, and The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. In 2000, Heaney published a new translation of Beowulf, turning the Anglo-Saxon epic into an international bestseller a thousand years after it was originally written. His most recent publications include Opened Ground (1998), Diary of One Who Vanished (2000), and Electric Light (2001).
Excerpt from the translation of Beowulf (2000)
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved,
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
Beowulf: A Translation (2000)
Opened Ground (1998)
The Redress of Poetry: Oxford lectures (1995)
New Selected Poems 1966-1987 (1990)
Door into the Dark (1969)
Death of a Naturalist (1966)
Nobel lecture, “Crediting Poetry”
New York Times Review of Beowulf
Commencement address given by Heaney