Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for representing the passion of the inhabitants of his beloved yet troubled Emerald Isle, died last week in Dublin at age 74. Considered the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats, he had been hospitalized after suffering a fall.
Mr. Heaney is known to American readers for his celebrated translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. The saga of a hero’s battle with a monster who laid siege to a castle was once a standard reading assignment for every middle-school student. Mr. Heaney’s accessible translation removed the language barriers that once obscured enjoyment of the tale for earlier generations of readers.
Mr. Heaney was born on a family farm in Londonderry, in the western part of Northern Ireland. Although he lived in Ulster during what the Irish refer to as “The Troubles,” he refused to put his art at the service of sectarian violence.
Mr. Heaney was a proud Irish Catholic, but never partisan. His poems testified to his egalitarian spirit without sacrificing the distinctive voice that came with having grown up the son of a cattle trader in County Derry. He made frequent reference to images that would be familiar to those who worked the land.
Educated at Queen’s University in Belfast, Mr. Heaney published his first poems in a student publication in 1959. A few years later, he published his first anthology, Death of a Naturalist. By the mid-1960s, he was acknowledged as one of Ireland’s most acclaimed poets.
As violence between the Catholic minority and the Protestant majority mounted, Mr. Heaney resisted pressure to justify bloodshed by Catholic extremists, although he didn’t denounce it as strongly as some would have liked. Ever sensitive to the complexities of the Irish conflict, Mr. Heaney would sometimes resort to ambiguous language to say what otherwise was hard to say.
Seamus Heaney will be remembered as a voice for peace in dark times and a lover of the Irish soul.