Seamus Heaney. A Brief Introduction
Seamus Heaney was the son of a farmer who worked 50 hectares of land and kept cattle. His mother was an Ulsterwoman who never stopped talking while his father rarely spoke. So, early in life, Seamus Heaney found himself stood between speech and silence. Soon he learned of other divisions in Ireland and the world, and that greater world landed on the doorstep in 1943 when Americans built an airfield by the Heaneys’ farm. It was a staging post for the invasion of Normandy. In ‘Making Strange’ Heaney recalled this glimpse of otherness as akin to a field of alien corn and himself as pig in the middle caught between two selves.
I stood between them
the one with his travelled intelligence
and tawny containment,
his speech like the twang of a bowstring
and another, unshorn and bewildered
in the tubs of his wellingtons,
smiling at me for help,
faced with this stranger I’d brought him.
The first time away from home came at the age of twelve when Seamus won a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school in Derry. Here he learnt Latin and Irish, and went on to study Anglo-Saxon at university along with English Literature. His parents died when he was in his teens, leaving nine children to be brought up by uncles. Yet, although he travelled a long way from home, rural County Derry remained for him the country of the mind.
He graduated from Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1961 then trained to become a teacher. While teaching in a secondary school he married Marie Devlin and they subsequently had three children. His first book entitled Eleven Poems appeared in 1966 and the following year he took up a lectureship at Queen’s Belfast which he held until 1972 – by which time the Troubles had started in Northern Ireland and Heaney moved to Dublin.
The recipient of many literary awards, Seamus Heaney has held the post of Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard and was appointed Professor of Poetry at Oxford 1989-1994. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. On the death of Ted Hughes in 1998 he was offered the Laureateship which he declined. In 1999 he rendered the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf into modern English in a parallel text edition.
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