Obituary: Seamus Heaney / Irish poet of soil and strife dies at 74

April 13, 1939 -- Aug. 30, 2013

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Seamus Heaney, the 1995 Nobel laureate in Literature often described as the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died Friday in Dublin. He was 74.

His publisher, Faber & Faber, announced the death. The apparent cause was complications of a stroke Mr. Heaney suffered in 2006.

Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the nation was in a deep mourning that only the poet himself could describe. "For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of our language, our codes, our essence as a people," he told The Irish Times.

A native of Northern Ireland, Mr. Heaney, a Roman Catholic, was renowned for work that powerfully evoked the beauty and blood that together have come to define the modern Irish condition. The author of more than a dozen collections of poetry, as well as critical essays and works for the stage, he repeatedly explored the strife and moral quandaries that have plagued his homeland, while managing simultaneously to steer clear of polemic.

Mr. Heaney's poetry had a primeval, epiphanic quality and was often suffused with references to ancient myths -- Celtic, of course, but also those of ancient Greece. At its best, his work had both a meditative lyricism and an airy velocity. His lines might carry a boggy melancholy, but they also, as often as not, communicated the wild onrushing joy of being alive.

"Digging," the first poem in his first collection, "The Death of a Naturalist," described his father digging potatoes and his grandfather digging turf. The last lines seemed to set down a personal manifesto:

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.

And dig he did, producing a remarkable range of work: love poems, epic poems, poems about conflict and strife, odes to nature, poems addressed to friends, poems for the dead, poems that simply reveled in the sound of the English language.

In his hands, that language was plain and clear, often dazzling, with images of bogs and rocks and streams, as well as epiphanies of the soul. For Mr. Heaney, nature provided settings for moral problems, and through them he seemed to reach agnostics and believing Catholics alike.

Publishing more than a dozen major collections between 1966 and 2010 -- his later volumes include "The Spirit Level," "District and Circle" and "Bog Poems" -- he became acknowledged as a major literary voice of the 20th century.

He also wrote two plays, four works on the process of poetry and a well-regarded translation of "Beowulf."

He won dozens of accolades, among them the French Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1996 and the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2006.

Mr. Heaney was that rarity among modern poets: not only critically praised but also widely read. Millions of readers bought his books, finding his verse eminently accessible, with its familiar images and universal thoughts.

"Book sales may not mean much in the areas of fiction or biography, but for a poet to sell in the thousands is remarkable proof to his ability to speak in his poems to what are inadequately called 'ordinary people,' " The Irish Times wrote in an editorial after Mr. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize.

"Yet the popularity of his work should not be allowed to obscure the fact that this is deep, at times profound poetry, forged through hard thinking and an attentive, always tender openness to the world, especially the natural world."

Seamus Justin Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, on a farm called Mossbawn in County Derry in Northern Ireland's western part. He was the eldest of nine children.

All around him, Mr. Heaney watched police and public officials of the predominantly Protestant province treat Catholics with disdain, sometimes with cruelty.

He went to work as a schoolteacher, then a lecturer in English at Queen's College in Belfast and later at Carysfort College, a teacher training college near Dublin.

In 1972, one of the Northern Island conflict's most deadly years, he gave up full-time academic work to be a freelance writer, publishing the collection "Wintering Out."

He began wrestling with the evils of Ulster's sectarian strife and discrimination in his next collection, capturing the uneasiness of daily life in a divided society in poems such as "Whatever You Say Say Nothing" and "Funeral Rites."

Following his Nobel Prize, Mr. Heaney became a frequent lecturer at universities around the world and often conducted public readings in his resonant baritone voice. But he scaled back public commitments after he suffered a stroke in 2006.

Correction, posted Aug. 31: Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny is male; an earlier version of this story referred to him as "she."

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