Seamus Heaney, Irish Poet Whose Generous Spirit Touched U.S. Colleges, Dies at 74

Emory U.

Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013
September 09, 2013

Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet who died last month, was supposed to have gone to Emory University next February for the opening of a special exhibit of his papers housed there. His last visit to the university was in March, when he gave a reading of his poetry, splicing into his recitation his childhood memories of kites and blacksmiths.

Mr. Heaney's poetry brought him back again and again to his roots, in County Derry in Northern Ireland. But his work, and the demands of his fame, took him repeatedly to the United States, where he taught and gave talks at colleges.

"His travel diaries must have just been black with dates and commitments," says Geraldine Higgins, an associate professor of English and director of Irish studies at Emory. She is curator of next year's exhibit, "Seamus Heaney: the Music of What Happens."

Mr. Heaney, who died in a Dublin hospital on August 30 at the age of 74, wrote more than a dozen collections of poetry and a translation of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf that won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 2000, inspiring the Christian Science Monitor headline "'Harry Potter' Falls to a Medieval Slayer."

In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."

Emory was just one of the beneficiaries of what the poet's friends describe as his generous spirit—and his difficulty in saying no to invitations.

For a pivotal year that helped shape his view of the troubles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, in 1970-71, he taught at the University of California at Berkeley. Later, from 1985 to 1997, he was a professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard University, where he taught one semester a year, and he was poet in residence there from 1998 to 2006.

Staying at his rooms at Harvard, he told an interviewer from The Paris Review in 1994, was "not an alternative life" to his one with his family in Dublin but "like nesting on a ledge." He had an overlapping assignment as professor of poetry at the University of Oxford from 1989 to 1994.

Kevin Young, a professor of creative writing and English who studied under Mr. Heaney at Harvard, now curates his former professor's papers and other literary collections at Emory. As a teacher, Mr. Young remembers, Mr. Heaney "created a sense that being a writer involves writing, of course, but also the world of literature and friendship and community."

The Seamus Heaney collection at Emory began when the poet donated his lecture notes after he delivered the 1988 inaugural lecture there for the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature. His friends at Emory eventually persuaded him to give more.

One of them was William M. Chace, who became Emory's president in 1995. He met Mr. Heaney in 1975, while spending a summer in Dublin. He had invited the writer Thomas Flanagan, then an English professor at the University of California at Berkeley, to dinner and Mr. Flanagan asked if he could bring a friend, who turned out to be Mr. Heaney.

"He was really wonderful. He was humorous, calm, fond of people," and "unpretentious," says Mr. Chace, who is now an honorary professor of English emeritus at Stanford University.

He remembers encouraging Mr. Heaney, after he won the Nobel, to add his papers to those of other Northern Irish writers at Emory. "Bill, I'm no longer in that dormitory," Mr. Heaney said, which to Mr. Chace was "his nice way of saying, modestly but also clearly, I'm not to be consigned in the small world of Northern Irish poets." In 2011, Mr. Heaney donated many of his working papers to the National Library of Ireland.

But he also gave much to Emory. At a reading in honor of Mr. Chace's retirement in 2003, Mr. Heaney read a poem he wrote, "The Comet at Lullwater," about seeing the Hale-Bopp comet from the roof of the president's house.

Even though he was tugged by cross-allegiances, to Harvard, to his alma mater Queens University Belfast, and to the Irish people, Mr. Heaney agreed to turn over a significant amount of his correspondence and other personal papers to Emory that year, calling it "a memorial" to Mr. Chace's work.

The papers speak to his central role in Irish literature, as he wrote to many of the other writers whose works are also in the collection.

Professors at Emory like to bring students to the archives, where they can hold in their hands a draft of a poem they are studying in class. The lesson gained, Ms. Higgins says, is that literature is not just a gift from the Muse but the labor of a craftsman.