Seamus Heaney’s Literature
Seamus Heaney’s literature is at the core of everything we do at HomePlace. Recordings of the poet reading his work accompany you as you explore his words, rhythm and rhyme in our exhibition.
In our library, we have an extensive collection of Seamus Heaney’s books. You will also see on display hundreds of books donated by the Heaney family from the poet’s own collection. These include books Seamus Heaney enjoyed reading, works by his friends, colleagues and influences, and works of critical theory.
All of which makes Seamus Heaney HomePlace the perfect place to lose yourself in the work of one of Ireland’s greatest writers. Until we welcome you to HomePlace, here are some of the questions we are most frequently asked about Seamus Heaney’s literature.
How many poems did Seamus Heaney write?
Seamus Heaney wrote 546 poems for inclusion in his main collections. In addition to those, he wrote many one-offs, limited editions and broadsides, which makes it almost impossible to quantify exactly how many poems Seamus Heaney wrote over the course of his lifetime. His poetry career began when he was still a student at Queen’s University Belfast and continued until he finished his final poem – ‘Banks of a Canal’ – just 10 days before he passed away in August 2013.
Heaney published 12 complete collections of poetry Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), North (1975), Field Work (1979), Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987), Seeing Things (1991), The Spirit Level (1996), Electric Light (2001), District and Circle (2006) and Human Chain (2010). In total, he is the author of more than 20 volumes of poetry and criticism, and also wrote or edited several anthologies, limited editions and booklets.
What are the themes of Seamus Heaney’s poetry?
Heaney’s early volumes, including Door into the Dark, Wintering Out and North are rooted in the poet’s relationships with the landscapes, people and traditions of his childhood in the Bellaghy area. Additionally, poems such as ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ reflect the turmoil that had erupted in Northern Ireland at the time.
Heaney’s next three volumes – Field Work, Station Island and The Haw Lantern – deal with themes of personal and political history, place and the ‘everyday miracles’ that would be alluded to in the citation when Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.
In 1991’s Seeing Things, Seamus Heaney addresses the death of his father, Patrick, by drawing inspiration from Virgil and Dante Alighieri’s visions of the afterlife.
Themes of loss, memory and a changing world continue in The Spirit Level, Electric Light, District and Circle, and Human Chain.
Which are the most famous Seamus Heaney poems?
‘Digging’ from Seamus Heaney’s 1966 debut, Death of a Naturalist, is perhaps his most famous poem. In common with other famous Seamus Heaney poems, as well as being critically acclaimed, ‘Digging’ is also very well-known from being widely studied in schools and universities around the world.
A similar argument can be made for ‘Mid-Term Break’ being Seamus Heaney’s most famous poem. It addresses the tragic death of Seamus Heaney’s brother, Christopher, in a road accident at the age of four. Like ‘Digging’, it is a fixture on English literature syllabuses.
In terms of global reach, extracts from Heaney’s play The Cure of Troy — recited at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021 by Lin Manuel Miranda and frequently quoted by both President Biden and President Bill Clinton — are also among his most widely known verses.
When was ‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney written?
‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney was written prior to its publication, along with two other Heaney poems, in an issue of The New Statesman magazine in 1964. The poems prompted Faber and Faber’s poetry editor Charles Monteith to contact Heaney and ask to see a manuscript. ‘Digging’ was among the poems included in Heaney’s debut poet collection Death of a Naturalist in 1966.
Did Seamus Heaney write only poetry?
No, in addition to writing poetry Seamus Heaney was an accomplished translator, and also wrote plays and prose. His translation of the Old English Anglo-Saxon poem ‘Beowulf’ was an international bestseller. The work was widely praised for breathing new life into a well-known piece of literature, and for Heaney’s success in being able to incorporate Old English poetry elements in this modern translation.
Heaney also translated works from Middle Irish, including ‘Sweeney Astray’ and ‘The Midnight Verdict’. The Last Walk, a limited edition translation of Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli’s work, and Heaney’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI were both published posthumously.
Heaney wrote two plays – The Cure at Troy (1990) and The Burial at Thebes (2004). The plays were adaptations of Sophocles’ ancient Greek dramas Philoctetes and Antigone, respectively. The Cure at Troy was written for the Field Day Theatre Company, which premiered the play at the Guildhall in Derry in 1990. The Burial at Thebes was first performed to mark the centenary of The Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 2004.
A renowned essayist, Heaney’s prose was published in three collections: Preoccupations: Selected Prose (1980), The Government of the Tongue (1988) and The Redress of Poetry (1995). The latter was a collection of lectures he gave between 1989 and 1994 while serving as the Oxford Professor of Poetry.
Dennis O’Driscoll’s 2008 book Stepping Stones is a collection of interviews with Heaney in which the poet recollects his life from his earliest childhood memories through to the stroke he suffered in 2006. With Heaney having never written an autobiography, Stepping Stones is the closest the poet came to writing a memoir.
Who were Seamus Heaney's contemporaries?
Seamus Heaney was a member of The Belfast Group, a group of young Northern Irish poets who met weekly under the guidance of Queen’s University Belfast lecturer and poet Philip Hobsbaum to share and develop their work. His friends and contemporaries among a generation of gifted poets starting their careers in Northern Ireland in the 1960s included Michael Longley and Derek Mahon.
Heaney was also influenced by the English poet Ted Hughes. The pair later became close friends and worked together on to edit the anthologies The Rattle Bag and The School Bag.
When did Seamus Heaney win the Nobel Prize in Literature?
Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. In announcing their decision, the Nobel committee cited Heaney’s “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”. Heaney was on holiday in Greece at the time. He was unaware he had won the award for two days until he called home and his son Chris was able to break the news to him.
Joining W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett as a Nobel Laureate sealed Heaney’s position as one of Ireland’s greatest writers, though he would refer to the honour with characteristic humility as “the N thing” in conversation with others.
What literary honours did Seamus Heaney win?
Heaney’s work received critical acclaim from the outset. He won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize early in his career. His greatest literary achievement came in 1995 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Seamus Heaney won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award twice. Firstly, for The Spirit Level in 1996, then again for Beowulf in 2000. Other literary awards won by Seamus Heaney include the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 Irish Book Award, the Griffin Prize Lifetime Recognition Award in 2012.
Heaney was also made Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government in 1996, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts Sciences, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Saoi of Aosdána and an honorary fellow of the Royal Irish Academy.
Who was Seamus Heaney's publisher?
All 12 of Seamus Heaney’s main poetry collections were published by Faber and Faber. Several of his limited editions and translations were published by The Gallery Press.
Can you quote or reproduce Seamus Heaney poems?
If you would like to reproduce or use a quote from a Seamus Heaney work, you will need permission to do so from Faber and Faber, which handles the vast majority of permissions requests on behalf of the Estate of Seamus Heaney.
To reproduce, include in an anthology, translate, perform, record or set to music Seamus Heaney’s poetry, you will need permissions. Requests to use Seamus Heaney’s work can be logged on the Faber Permissions website.
Explore Seamus Heaney’s Literature
If you’ve got more questions about Seamus Heaney’s work, we would be delighted to welcome you to Seamus Heaney HomePlace, in Bellaghy, where you can explore the poet’s life and literature through our exhibition.