Ireland mourns 'keeper of language' poet Seamus Heaney

Fri Aug 30, 2013 10:22am EDT
 
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By Sam Cage

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Seamus Heaney, one of the world's best-known poets and winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature, died on Friday after a short illness at the age of 74, his family said.

The Northern Ireland-born Heaney's poems evoke an Irish country childhood, with images of potato diggers and peat bog cutters, and echo the deep political splits that have divided the island.

His works include the 1966 debut "Death of a Naturalist", "The Spirit Level", "District and Circle" and an acclaimed translation of the old English epic poem "Beowulf".

"For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people," Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said. "He belongs with Joyce, Yeats, Shaw and Beckett in the pantheon of our greatest literary exponents."

Heaney was a rarity among poets, having won acclaim from critics while producing best-sellers. Born on a farm in Mossbawn, County Londonderry in Northern Ireland in 1939, his poems nostalgically recall the sights and smells of a country childhood.

The weaving of rural roots and modern realism helped him to become the most acclaimed Irish poet since William Butler Yeats, who was awarded the Nobel prize in 1923. Heaney was born in the year that Yeats died, and died in Dublin near the house where Yeats was born.

A tousle-haired figure with a shy and subtle manner, he hated media hype and publishers' publicity caravans even as he became one of Ireland's most famous figures. It once took him three hours to walk down Dublin's main street, pursued by autograph hunters.

He found recognition in academic circles, becoming Professor of Poetry at Oxford University and lecturing at Harvard University, and won the Nobel prize for his "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth".   Continued...

 
Nobel prize winning poet Seamus Heaney recites his poem "Villanelle for an Anniversary" during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder