British and Irish Literature Seamus Heaney
Eugene O'Brien
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0028


Seamus Heaney (b. 13 April 1939–d. 30 August 2013), Nobel Prize winner in 1995, is possibly the foremost poet in the English-speaking world. He has produced thirteen collections of poetry, spanning the years 1966 to 2010, all of which have been critically and commercially popular. His work is widely quoted, and there have been some fifty monographs and collections written about his poetry, with articles and reviews numbering in the hundreds if not the thousands at this stage. He has also written five collections of prose essays that examine the role of the aesthetic in public discourse, and he has given numerous lectures, opinion pieces, guided readings, and interviews. He has produced award-winning translations of Antigone and Philoctetes, as well as a well-received translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2000, a rare achievement for a book of poetry. His work has become part of the public sphere, and his lines from The Cure at Troy (“ . . . and hope and history rhyme”) were quoted by Bill Clinton during the Irish peace process, which brought an end to thirty years of violence in Northern Ireland. In terms of his commentary on public events, he has come to fill the role of a public intellectual, and his poetry has chronicled the personal and societal development in Ireland over the last forty years or so, and he has written in some depth about political and social issues. The Nobel citation spoke of “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past,” and Heaney’s work is becoming increasingly important in the area of English literature and in the broadly cognate area of Irish studies, as he voices concerns and attitudes that resonate with the concerns of Irish people in the 21st century, as well as forging broader connections across the anglophone world. His prose is also becoming an increasing object of separate study, and its scope and range sees it crossing the borders of literary criticism into the realm of aesthetic thinking in many places. His work is both popular and critically acclaimed. He is increasingly looked to for comments on the state of Ireland and has made the practice of poetry more central to public discourse in Ireland and, by extension, in the public sphere in general.

General Overviews

These works are some of the most-read studies of Heaney, as they offer a broadly chronological and developmental outline of the poet’s work. Buttel 1975 is the first book-length study of Heaney, and it stakes out the ground of the first three books, seeing Heaney as a poet grounded in the actual. Morrison 1982 is a more sophisticated reading of Heaney as a postmodern poet; and although it deals with only the early books, it is still one of the best readings that does justice to the complexity of Heaney’s work. Corcoran 1998 (first published in 1986) provides a good overall reading of Heaney’s work up to The Spirit Level. It includes an interview sporadically through the book and the readings of the poems are incisive and thought provoking. It is far more than the “introduction” that is its label on the initial printing. Andrews 1988 offers a strong reading of Heaney’s ability to access aspects of the unconscious in his writing through attention being given to inwardness. It is a holistic account of the development of his work. This is an idiosyncratic account of his work. Murphy 2000 offers a solid overview of Heaney’s work, looking at it on a book-by-book basis, and provides a good general introduction. Vendler 1998 has some deep close-readings of Heaney’s poetry, and it is excellent on the formal construction and allusiveness of the poems. It is a complex study, as much about the value of poetry as it is about the value of Heaney, and well worth reading at an advanced level. O’Brien 2005 provides a book-by-book account of Heaney’s work up to District and Circle and looks at how different aspects of Ireland and Irishness have been imagined and reimagined in Heaney’s writing. Russell 2016 offers the first introduction that addresses the complete Heaney canon.

  • Andrews, Elmer. The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: All the Realms of Whisper. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-19337-0

    Provides a focused study up to Station Island, which sees Heaney as a complex writer who grounds the general in the particular, and whose focus is on inwardness. There is a strong focus on the unconscious aspects of language in Heaney’s work, and on the subtlety of the poems in their dealing with reality.

  • Buttel, Robert. Seamus Heaney. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1975.

    Looks at the first three collections chronologically, focusing on the poetic language and the use of rhyme and rhythm, on the literary influences, and on close readings of poems. The author also traces themes that connect the local with the universal and those of art and the local.

  • Corcoran, Neil. Seamus Heaney. London: Faber, 1998.

    The revised edition of a seminal book looks at Heaney’s work up to The Spirit Level, with a chapter on each book, as well as a chapter on his prose (pp. 209–233). It focuses on theme, style, and development of language in strong close readings, and ably explains references and contextual issues.

  • Morrison, Blake. Seamus Heaney. London: Methuen, 1982.

    This is an enlightened early study of Heaney’s poetry up to Field Work, which sees him as a postmodern poet, challenging a consensus that hitherto had admired Heaney’s poetry “for not being modern” (p. 12). Heaney is seen through the lens of writers such as Barthes and in terms of mediating silence and speech.

  • Murphy, Andrew. Seamus Heaney. Writers and Their Work Series. Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 2000.

    Offers a solid introduction to Heaney’s work. Situates the volumes, up to The Spirit Level, in a chronological and developmental context. Connections are made to the political context and to the development of Heaney’s approach to this context. Readings are broad and largely thematic.

  • O’Brien, Eugene. Seamus Heaney: Creating Irelands of the Mind. 2d ed. Studies on Contemporary Ireland Series. Dublin, Ireland: Liffey, 2005.

    A broadly thematic overview of all the books, up to District and Circle. Looks at Heaney’s work as paralleling sociocultural issues in Ireland over the past fifty years. The structure is chronological, with a chapter per collection, and the close readings are influenced by Derrida and Adorno. An advanced introduction.

  • Russell, Richard Rankin. Seamus Heaney: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

    This is the first study of the complete Heaney canon. The book covers the poetry, prose, drama, and translations. It looks at the influences on his writing from English and European sources, as well as the influence of Catholicism on his work. It also discusses the work in terms of the political context of Northern Ireland, focusing on the debate between nationalism and republicanism.

  • Vendler, Helen. Seamus Heaney. London: HarperCollins, 1998.

    Encompassing ten collections (up to Seeing Things), the alliterative and indicative chapter titles examine specific themes throughout: “Anonymities,” “Archaeologies,” “Anthropologies,” “Allegories,” and “Airiness.” Close readings of the poems liberate complex meanings. This is an original and satisfying reading of the work, looking at linguistic and stylistic as well as thematic aspects.

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