Seamus Heaney: ‘He Became His Admirers’

A student remembers the plainspoken Nobel laureate who carved pumpkins and worked miracles

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Seamus Heaney, recipient of 1995 Nobel prize for Literature, attends the celebrations about centenary of italian author Giovanni Pascoli for University of Bologna at Archiginnasio on April 3, 2012 in Bologna, Italy.

It was an unseasonably warm night, and the upper room of the white clapboard building on Kirkland Street was lit by candles and decorated with a dozen pumpkins ready for carving. The Sanctum, as the upper room was known to undergraduates, was filled with young acolytes all staring at one of poetry’s highest priests. There are not many Nobel laureates who would carve pumpkins and read poetry with strangers, but Seamus Heaney came eagerly to honor the dead and encourage the living.

Heaney won the Nobel Prize “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles,” but he was himself a worker of miracles. Scholars and critics will eulogize him by praising his poetry, but I write as one of the many students who knew him as a teacher—a man generous with his time, unsparing with his praise, and brimful with joy.

That tall, snowy-haired owl of a man never seemed to tire of the endless requests for his signature or the unending accounts of how some poem of his had changed the course of someone’s life. He was patient with me both the first and the second time that I told him what effect “Digging”  had on me: first when I was holding him hostage at a photocopier, distracted from the copies he had asked me to make by the opportunity to confess the profound power of his words; second when he made time for tea with me in Sligo, but so clearly had hoped to talk about something, anything but his own work.

Only twelve volumes of poetry survive Seamus Heaney, but the next generation of writers is filled with students nurtured by his teaching, readers encouraged by his verses. His influence is too great to estimate. His plainspoken, plaintive poetry about the tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland brought the emotional reality of the conflict to the world; his lyric translation of Beowulf introduced the history of the English language to scores of schoolchildren.

When W.H. Auden wrote his elegy of W.B. Yeats, the surviving poet said: “he became his admirers.” The same is true of Seamus Heaney: legions mourn his death and lift high his verses today. Although his “squat pen rests” forever, Heaney left us with a body of work and a lifetime of stories that will live in us, his many admirers.


I realize now a few days after his death and after reading the many comments of friends and students that the poetry world has not just lost a fine poet, it has lost its Irish poet. Irish poets have a special relationship to the ancestry of poetry, something like the Greeks perhaps.  But there is a difference, it is like losing a grandfather or Dad.  Seamus' poem about digging wasn't just a clever metaphor for writing.  Ireland did give us the "roots" of our poetry.  Heaney's link to Yeats exists partly because we need to have an Irish Bard.  Heaney was indeed a simple, generous friend no doubt, but as Yeats liked to show us, Heaney was also a part of the cosmic cycle that links us to the Zodiac, to the patterns of stars, to the Druid's alphabet of trees, to the furrows of words where we dig and dig and pray we'll find enough growing in the dirt to nourish ourselves and our families.  We have lost our Irish poet, the one who connected us to our ancestors, to the earth and its spirits, to the hearth and its memories, to "the deep heart's core."