Seamus Heaney was born in April of 1939 in Castledawson, Northern Ireland. He grew up in a farming family, something which greatly influenced his later depictions of Ireland and what it means to live there. As a young man, he graduated from Queens University in Belfast with a First Class Honours degree in English. After school, he spent time teaching in West Belfast and started to publish poetry. His first collection, Death of a Naturalist was published in 1965.
Seamus Heaney was awarded the Ambassador of Conscience Award after writing ‘From the Republic of Conscience,’ for United Nations Day. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. A number of honorary doctorates followed over the next five years. Heaney published his final book Human Chain, in 2010 and died in August of 2013. Today his poetry is taught all around the world and he is beloved by readers of all ages.
Top 10 Seamus Heaney Poems
This poem is, like many of Seamus Heaney’s, about Ireland. It is dedicated to one of his friends, the artist T.P. Flanagan, whose vision of the Irish countryside Heaney cited as an inspiration. Throughout the poem, the bog represents many things and they all have to do with the past. It is the deep past, which is known today through stories and songs, and seen through what Ireland has and does not have compared to other countries. The last line is striking, the poet states that “The west centre is bottomless”. It is a well to the past that does not seem to have an end, but is that worth anything? The speaker wonders if it holds any information useful to contemporary Ireland.
This poem is one of Seamus Heaney’s best-known works. The title references the name given to the body of a prehistoric man found in Denmark. The man supposedly died as part of a sacrifice. It is this sacrifice that Heaney relates to Ireland, specifically Northern Ireland. He begins the poem by wanting to visit the body and shows his interest in it by giving vivid descriptions of what it looks like. It symbolizes sacrifice, fate and something dark in the minds of humankind. But, there is something hopeful in death as well. He was a devout man, dying in order to help those around him. It is at this point that Heaney relates the poem back to Ireland and the deaths of his people. They too died in order to protect the futures of those they loved.
‘Digging’ is a poem that takes place almost entirely within a daydream. It is centred around a young man who is listening to his father work outside. He recalls his recent familial past, from his father to his grandfather. Both men, the speaker notices, worked hard throughout their lives. This is, in contrast, it seems to the speaker himself who is daydreaming while trying to write something. Eventually, he returns to reality and prepares himself to do his own handwork at his desk.
This short poem by Seamus Heaney speaks about the differences between childhood and adulthood and all the troubles one will come across as they make the transition. The whole poem initially appears to be about picking blackberries, but one has to look closer to see that the ripening and decaying blackberries are a picture of human life and death. When the berries are picked, they are at their best. These are the prime days of their lives. But, if they aren’t picked, they sit in the sun and their “blood” cools off. This leaves them to start decaying. To the speaker of this piece, the death of the berries does not seem fair. The berries, no matter how much he wants them to, don’t keep.
In ‘Casualty’ the Seamus Heaney depicts the life and death of a fisherman. He describes this man as someone who would “drink by himself” and call again and again for more run and “blackcurrant”. The man had a history in the town and was known by everyone. This appeals to the speaker and makes him wish he’d gotten a chance to know him. Unfortunately for the fisherman, his habits cost him his life. He was a good man who was killed in an attack by the British Parachute Regiment in Derry. The poem concludes with the man’s funeral.
‘Death of a Naturalist’ was published by Seamus Heaney in a collection of the same name in 1966. The poem begins with a number of poignant images of a swamp-like area. There are flies, wet soil and the hot sun burning down from above. There are also frogspawn, or the stage of a frog’s life before it becomes a tadpole. The sight of these barely developed creatures makes the speaker think about school and when he and his classmates would collect them in jars. He was fascinated by frogs at this point. Suddenly, the poem ends with the speaker encountering more frogs than he has ever seen in one place. He is terribly frightened by the sight and runs off, shattering the pleasant memories of childhood the creatures brought back.
Tis piece is another that reflects on the violence in Ireland. This time though, Heaney looks at his country from a distance. He speaks directly about Spain and the Spanish Civil War which was taking place there. The poem focuses on what Heaney did in Madrid and the guilt he felt about his separation from his people. He only suffered the sun in Madrid, while others back home were fighting in the street.
‘The Barn’ is a nightmarish retelling of experiences within a dark and cold barn, filled with foreboding tools and creatures. Most of these tools are gathered in the back like an armoury. The creatures include birds, bats, and rats. As the speaker recounts his experiences in the barn, he recalls how scared he was of the animals and how he was forced to cower from them. The poem ends on a cliffhanger as what should be innocuous sacks of corn are personified and begin to advance on the speaker.
At the beginning of the poem, the speaker directs his words to the painter, Brueghel. He speaks about seed cutters and the way they “kneel under the hedge in half circle”. The speaker also goes through the movements made by the cutters. How they use a sharp knife and take their time. By the end of the poem, the seed cutters become everyone. They are “all of us”.
This piece was published on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. It was written in tribute to the rebels who fought against Britain in 1798. The word “Croppies” comes from the style in which the fighters wore their hair. Throughout the text, Seamus Heaney chose to use a first-person narrator. This makes the person’s depictions of the fighters all the more realistic. It seems that this person also had a stake in the fight; Ireland was also his country. The “croppies” did everything they could to fight off the British, their desperation is made very clear. A reader should sympathize with their plight and feel for the men, especially when they face death at the end.