Irish poet and Nobel laureate whose lines of love and loss took inspiration from his childhood in Derry
In 2009, as part of the extensive celebrations in Ireland for his 70th birthday, RTÉ broadcast a documentary about Seamus Heaney. Towards its close, Heaney, who has died aged 74, was asked whether anything in his work seemed appropriate to him as an epitaph. He demurred at first but, when gently prodded, quoted what he had translated from Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles when his friend the great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz died in 2004. Telling the story of the old king who dies and vanishes into the earth, the play's Messenger says, in Heaney's version: "Wherever that man went, he went gratefully." That, said Heaney, would do for him too.
The gratitude is not so much, surely, for the leaving of life, but for the work well done. Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006 and his volume Human Chain (2010) is painfully shadowed by ageing and mortality. But it is also deeply informed by a spirit of resilience and acceptance and, in the extraordinary love poem Chanson d'Aventure, which describes his ambulance drive to hospital with his wife, Marie, by the sense of renewal and new reward, even at a late stage, in human relationships.
Mortality and domestic relations, affection and obligation, had preoccupied Heaney throughout his work, and were frequently sounded together. One of his most popular poems, Mid-Term Break, from his collection Death of a Naturalist (1966), handles the death of his younger brother Christopher in a road accident in 1953, when Heaney was still a schoolboy; that loss is returned to again in the superb late poem The Blackbird of Glanmore, in District and Circle (2006), which is also concerned with intimations of the poet's own mortality.
The deaths of many in the Troubles feature in numerous Heaney poems, notably in North (1975), where, in the now famous sequence of "bog poems", they are brought into alignment with the iron-age bodies recovered from the bogs of Jutland, which Heaney had encountered in PV Glob's book The Bog People. In the collections Field Work (1979) and Station Island (1984), Heaney encounters ghosts. With these poems, and others, he became one of the great modern elegists.
But Heaney was also an excellent poet of familial love and, notably, of enduring married love. There are numerous poems of filial affection, for both mother and father, and wonderful poems for his children and, latterly, his granddaughter. One of his finest poems, Sunlight, in North, was written for his aunt Mary, who was partly responsible for his upbringing. Chanson d'Aventure marked a late stage in the marital relationship he had vividly portrayed for years after his marriage to Marie Devlin in 1965: from the difficulties evoked in Summer Home (in Wintering Out, 1972), a poem of regret and self-recrimination, through the stabilities, accommodations, supportiveness, sources of strength and erotic tenderness and arousal recorded in such poems as The Skunk and An Afterwards in Field Work (1979), and The Underground and La Toilette in Station Island.
Especially in its bleak treatment of the Troubles, Heaney's poetry is full of broken things, but it is also a poetry of the continuities that sustain us against mortality. His resourceful, disciplined equilibrium finds one of its best expressions at the end of A Kite for Michael and Christopher, in Station Island, when the poet-father hands the emblematic kite on to his sons:
Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand in here in front of me
and take the strain.
The way his work faces the worst but steadies itself against it, too, must be the greatest single reason for Heaney's huge readership. He presumably had his popularity in mind when he called himself, in Station Island, a "poet, lucky poet".
The eldest of nine children of Margaret (née McCann) and Patrick Heaney, a Catholic farmer and cattle dealer, he was born at Mossbawn farm near the village of Castledawson in County Derry. Seamus was an early beneficiary of the 1947 Northern Ireland Education Act, attending St Columb's college in Derry, where his contemporaries included the politician John Hume and the critic and academic Seamus Deane. He studied English language and literature at Queen's University Belfast, graduating with a first-class degree in 1961. He taught for a brief period in Belfast and joined the writers' workshop known as the Group initiated by the poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum, who taught at Queen's. After Hobsbaum left the university, Heaney was appointed to a lectureship in English in 1966 and he became chairman of the Group, whose other members included Michael Longley and Bernard MacLaverty. An important impetus to the burgeoning of poetry in the north, it would eventually also include the poets Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson.
In 1964 Karl Miller published three of Heaney's poems in the New Statesman, where they were noticed by the Northern Irish-born Charles Monteith, one of the directors of the publishers Faber and Faber. When he received Monteith's letter soliciting a manuscript, it was, Heaney said, "like getting a letter from God the Father". Two years later, Faber published Death of a Naturalist. It received exceptional acclaim, and Heaney almost immediately became a poet keenly watched, followed and imitated. By then, he had married Devlin, with whom he would have three children, Michael, Christopher and Catherine Ann.
Heaney took part in some of the first protest marches following the RUC assault on the civil rights march in Derry on 5 October 1968, and he contributed articles on the issue to the Listener.
The Heaneys spent an important year in the US, at the University of California at Berkeley, in 1970-71, and Heaney got to know the contemporary poetry of America's west coast. On their return, he resigned from his post at Queen's, became a freelance writer and moved with his family to the Republic of Ireland. They lived in a rented cottage in a relatively remote, beautiful part of County Wicklow, on what had once been a vast estate owned by the family of the playwright and poet JM Synge. The Glanmore cottage was to prove, both at that time and later, after the Heaneys bought it in 1988, not just a bolthole from a busy Dublin life – it had no telephone – but also a source of poetic power. It was the secluded site of a great deal of often nocturnal and, he once told me, almost trancelike, poetic composition. Glanmore Sonnets and Glanmore Revisited are the most obvious products of that place and state, and appropriate testimony to it.
Inevitably, the move south by a significant Irish Catholic writer from the north was read as having emblematic import; and in Exposure, which appears at the end of North, Heaney figures himself as "a wood-kerne / Escaped from the massacre". He spent several years hosting a books programme on Irish radio and in 1975 took up teaching again, this time at Carysfort College, a Catholic teacher-training college in Dublin. Heaney bought a house in the city – "by a famous strand," he says in a poem: that is, Sandymount, along which Stephen Dedalus walks in an early episode of James Joyce's Ulysses.
In 1980 Heaney published Preoccupations, the first of several collections of critical essays. His literary criticism came to assume great authority. Heaney wrote in richly rewarding ways about Wordsworth, Yeats, Dante, Patrick Kavanagh, John Clare, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop.
Developing an international reputation, notably in America, Heaney initiated a long relationship with Harvard University, where he had a visiting professorship in 1979. He held the Boylston chair of rhetoric and oratory there (1985-97), teaching one semester a year, and he then continued the contact in a less formal capacity. He was professor of poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994 and the resulting lectures were collected as The Redress of Poetry in 1995. In that year he won the Nobel prize in literature. During his Nobel lecture, he dwelt at some length on the politics of Northern Ireland, condemning both "the atrocious nature of the IRA's campaign of bombings and killings" and "the ruthlessness of the British army on occasions like Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972". Heaney's other accolades over the years included the TS Eliot, Forward, David Cohen and (twice) Whitbread prizes. In 1996 he was made a commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2004 Queen's University opened its Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry.
There is no doubt Heaney took great delight in his success. He was an adept, even charismatic, performer before an audience – as a reader of his own poems in academic auditoriums, as a public lecturer, and as a radio and television broadcaster; and he certainly understood, from very early on, the mechanisms involved in the creation and maintenance of a successful public reputation. In a sometimes envious literary world this led to some cavilling, notably upon the 2008 publication of Stepping Stones in which Heaney, already a much-interviewed poet, discussed his life and career with his friend and fellow poet Dennis O'Driscoll.
The book was clearly intended as the alternative to an autobiography, and if Heaney's way with his readership was absolutely not Samuel Beckett's or even Heaney's friend Brian Friel's ways of withdrawal and silence, the book is, in the event, an exercise not in egotism or hubris but in self-questioning, self-definition, self-analysis, self-evaluation and, only finally, self-justification. As such, it suggests Heaney's conception of his role as a writer always included a strong element of the pedagogic. What he commended in the poet Marina Tsvetaeva– "the good force of creative mind at work in the light of conscience" – can be commended in him too.
When he wrote about Yeats in an early essay – one of many in which Heaney returns to the work of his great Irish poetic forebear – he used the word "exemplary" of that poet's demeanour at a particular point in his life, and Heaney's own life had the character of an experiment that was also available for scrutiny. For all the "luck" of the career, it was a life lived with a strong awareness of social and cultural responsibility. If the even-handedness of some of his explicit political remarks could seem almost diplomatic at times (politicians, including Bill Clinton, have been fond of quoting him), he was also, when the occasion demanded, a forceful articulator of an Irish political conscience before a primarily English audience. This was notably the case at a prizegiving in 1988, at which he chastised the English press for their reporting of Northern Ireland, and in the last of his Oxford lectures, Frontiers of Writing, in which he analysed his perturbed feelings when he stayed in a Tory cabinet minister's room in an Oxford college at the time of the IRA hunger strikes in 1981.
Heaney's major public commitment in Ireland was to the Field Day Theatre Company, of which, along with Friel and Stephen Rea, he became a director. Formed initially to stage contemporary plays outside the commercial theatre, Field Day developed, through various publications, into a controversial agency of agitation in Irish cultural politics. In 1983 it published Heaney's Sweeney Astray, a translation from the medieval Irish tale Buile Suibhne, and in 1990 it staged The Cure at Troy, his version of Philoctetes by Sophocles. Both make clear, if coded, reference to contemporary Irish political life. Heaney published a further dramatic translation, of Sophocles's Antigone, as The Burial at Thebes, in 2004, and it premiered at Dublin's Abbey theatre that year.
Translation was a major element of his later work: notably his outstandingly successful version, published in 1999, of the long Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and his version of a Horatian ode, Anything Can Happen, which commemorated the events of 9/11.
Given his eminence, Heaney was exceptionally approachable: gregarious, generous, courteous and convivial. He was a formidably, spontaneously eloquent man gifted with a wonderful verbal memory: he once recited the whole of one of Philip Larkin's less well-known poems to me, and another time several prose paragraphs from the philosopher EM Cioran. Nevertheless, his social manner was entirely relaxed and relaxing. He was a benignly mischievous raconteur and took great delight in telling, and hearing, jokes. He was very funny indeed, and to spend any time at all in his company was to laugh a great deal.
One of my happiest memories is of stopping off at a cinema in the Dublin suburb of Tallaght on the way to Wicklow with him to catch an afternoon showing of Robert Zemeckis's 2007 animated movie of Beowulf, which boldly attempts to sex up the text on which it is somewhat loosely based. The only other audience members were, weirdly, a party of ribald boy scouts. The various incongruities were striking, and hilarious.
Where he encountered envies, resentments and hostilities, Heaney appeared to handle them with equanimity and aplomb, even if the eventual dissolution of some old allegiances clearly caused distress. He was, though, a man of whom it could be said, as Yeats wanted it said of him, "his glory was he had such friends". These included international literary greats, such as Miłosz, Bishop, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell, Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott, but Heaney also had a great deal of time for younger writers, whom he encouraged and quietly promoted.
For all the strength of personality manifest in Heaney's life, it is of course to the poetry that we will return. This is always, as it were, a life altogether elsewhere; and the elsewhere in Heaney is characteristically the life of memory, and specifically the memory of his childhood place, the townlands of his origins whose Irish names – Anahorish, Broagh, Toome, Mossbawn, Bellaghy – are now such an indelible part of English-language poetry, as are their accents, rhythms and people. There is a real sense in which his poetry is permanent homesickness, as the place is returned to again and again, but always with a difference, until its topography becomes the register of an immensely complex psychological, emotional, cultural and political terrain; until the place has become, in fact, in the title of one of Heaney's collections of lectures, the "place of writing".
Crucial to the worldview of that place of origin was an earlier phase of Irish Catholicism, and although the religion itself had for Heaney long given way to the secularism characteristic of his literary generation, his categories of discrimination in writing as well as in ethics – almost, you might say, his categories of consciousness itself – continued always to carry a distinctively Catholic inflection. For all his later secularism, Heaney's imagination continued also to be suffused by images of an afterlife. This is figured most powerfully in his later work by allusions to and evocations of Virgil, and especially of the descent into the underworld in Book VI of the Aeneid, part of which Heaney translated in Seeing Things (1991), and which is conjured, absorbed and refracted in the sequence Route 110 in Human Chain.
In such places, the Aeneid seems to constitute a kind of displaced Catholicism, supplying a supportive mythology for a poet whose secularism continued to require such a thing. In the sequence Squarings, in Seeing Things, however, he finds an image all his own for an afterlife that is the almost miraculously continued life of a County Derry landscape:
At any rate, when light breaks over me
The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine
Where wind got saltier, the sky more hurried
And silver lamé shivered on the Bann
Out in mid-channel between the painted poles
That day I'll be in step with what escaped me.
He is survived by Marie, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann, and his grandchildren.
• Seamus Justin Heaney, poet, born 13 April 1939; died 30 August 2013