Unless you’ve been avoiding all media and news for the past week, you no doubt know that Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney has passed away at the age of 74. Internationally recognised as the greatest Irish poet since W.B. Yeats, Heaney’s approach to poetry was always to make it accessible to any reader. His poems spoke on the universal subjects of love, memory, conflict and friendship but he never abandoned his Irish roots. Though Heaney is no longer with us, the impact of his poetry will be felt for decades to come. To honour this man’s amazing achievements, we have decided to forgo our usual Writing Wednesday “tricks of the trade” theme and pay tribute to the life and career of one of the greatest poets of our time.
“Digging” Becomes his Manifesto
Like many of the poems from his second major collection, Death of a Naturalist, “Digging” is centred on his boyhood experiences with the men in his family. While his father and grandfather were expert farmers and landscapers, Heaney used his pen as his digging implement, and with it he spent the rest of his life unearthing truths.
Irish Nationalism Brings Controversy, Inspiration
A Catholic born in Northern Ireland, Heaney chose to live his life in the South. His writing often addressed the conflict between the Nationalists and the supporters of the Crown, and though he never allowed himself to be used as a mouthpiece for violent extremism, he did come under pressure to take sides during the twenty-five years of The Troubles. Instead, he focused his writing on a way to eulogise his friends lost in the violence and to address the personal costs of civil strife.
His “Works of Lyrical Beauty” Earns Him the Nobel Prize
By the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1995 Heaney had already amassed quite the following. Celebrity fans included US President Bill Clinton who, as Northern Ireland inched closer to armistice, quoted the closing lines from “The Cure at Troy” at a state banquet at Dublin Castle. But winning the Nobel Prize is what solidified Heaney’s place in literary history and surely inspired people around the world to dig deeper into his poems, which are said to “exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”
Final Words, “Don’t Be Afraid,” Create a Lasting Legacy
The fables of famous last words are rich and deep, and it’s fitting that a man celebrated for his “ethical depth” would continue to inspire even in death. Sent via text message to his wife, Heaney’s last words were revealed by his son Michael to be “Noli timere,” the Latin phrase meaning “Don’t be afraid.” These words, though they certainly carry their own private weight for his family, can be interpreted to remind us all not not to fear taking the difficult path to peace, and to confidently pick up the pen and start digging.
What is your favourite piece of poetry by Seamus Heaney? How has he inspired your own writing?