Born in County Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1939, Seamus Heaney was the eldest of nine children in a Catholic family. After receiving a degree in English from Queen's University in 1961, Heaney worked as a school teacher, then for several years as a freelancer. In 1975, he was appointed to a position in the English department at a college of education in Dublin, where he trained student teachers until 1981. Harvard University invited him for one term in 1979 and soon after, a part-time arrangement was proposed, allowing Heaney to teach the spring semester then return to Ireland and his family. In 1984 he was elected the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. As well, from 1989 to 1994 he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. After being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Heaney resigned from the Boylston Chair, but will still be affiliated with Harvard as a visiting poet-in-residence. He now lives in Dublin with his wife, Marie, with whom he has three children.
Heaney is the author of twelve collections of poetry, including Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), North (1975), Field Work (1979), Sweeney Astray (1984), Station Island (1985), The Haw Lantern (1987), Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996). His prose has been collected in three books: Preoccupations (1980), The Government of the Tongue (1989) and The Redress of Poetry (1995). His works also include a version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy (1990) and a translation, with Stanislaw Baranczak, of Jan Kochanowski's Laments (1995).
This interview took place over three mornings in mid-May of 1994 in Heaney's rooms at Harvard's Adams House. (It was briefly updated after Heaney received the Nobel.) A crabapple tree was in full blossom outside his living-room window. At the end of the month, Heaney would return to Ireland. Throughout our conversation, student voices and laughter drifted from the corridor. The phone rang steadily, until it was unplugged. Tea was served with Pepperidge Farm cookies. A coffee table and two large oak desks were covered with neat piles of correspondence, manuscripts, committee paperwork, literary magazines, books, et cetera. Heaney sat on the sofa in the glow of a lamp. A comfortable mix of tidiness and clutter made it easy for us to begin. A bouquet of lilacs drooped in a vase nearby. On the mantel there were family snapshots: his sons at the Wicklow cottage, all three children in Dublin with their mother, his good friend Bernard McCabe leaping joyfully into the air in Italy. Also, there was a Spode plate with an image of Tintern Abbey reproduced on it and a framed print called “The Tub of Diogenes,” both cherished birthday presents—Heaney had recently turned fifty-five. And there was a postcard of Henri Rousseau's painting The Muse and the Poet. At each session, Heaney wore a suit, pressed white shirt and tie. His Doc Martens were polished. His white hair, though neatly shorn, was tousled. He had traveled extensively in recent weeks, and though his brown eyes were heavy-lidded, his mind was alert and mischievous. After each session, we had a glass of Jack Daniels.
As you end your twelfth year at Harvard, what are your impressions of American students?
When I came here first I was very aware of their eagerness to be in contact with the professor. At home in Ireland, there's a habit of avoidance, an ironical attitude towards the authority figure. Here, there's a readiness to approach and a desire to take advantage of everything the professor has to offer. That unnerved me a bit at the start, but now I respect it. Also, the self-esteem of American students tends to be higher. They come to college with positive beliefs in their abilities, whatever they are.
Do you feel that teaching all these years has affected your writing?
Well, it's bound to have affected my energy levels! I remember Robert Fitzgerald warning me, or at least worrying for me, on that score. But for better or worse—I now feel for worse, earlier on I felt for better—I believed that poetry would come as a grace and would force itself through whenever it needed to come. My sense of the world, of what was laid out for me in my life, always included having a job. This simply has to do with my generation, my formation, my background—the scholarship boy coming from the farm. The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself—as a vocation and an elevation almost. I began as a school teacher in Belfast in 1962. I taught for one year in St. Thomas's Secondary Intermediate School. I had a good degree in English at Queen's University and felt that I had some literary possibility, but I had no real confidence. Then in November of 1962 I began to write in earnest, and sort of hopefully. As an undergraduate I had contributed poems to the English Society magazine. I had been part of a class that included, among other people, Seamus Deane, who was very much the star of the group, and George McWhirter, now a poet at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. And there were others with writerly ambitions around Queen's at the time—Stewart Parker, for example, who eventually became a dramatist—so I was one of that crowd. But I didn't have any sense of election or purpose or ambition. My pseudonym at Queen's, in the magazines where I published, was Incertus—Latin for uncertain—I was just kicking the ball around the penalty area, not trying to shoot at the goal. Then in 1962 the current began to flow. I remember taking down Ted Hughes's Lupercal from the shelves of the Belfast public library and opening it at “View of a Pig,” and immediately going off and writing a couple of poems that were Hughes pastiches almost. The first one was called “Tractors”; I remember a line that said “they gargled sadly”—which pleased me a lot at the time. So I sent it out to the Belfast Telegraph— not the greatest literary journal in the world, but even so, it published that poem. And that was of immense importance because I knew no one at the paper, which meant that the thing had been accepted on its own merits, such as they were.
You grew up in a family where the men were nonverbal. And you've acknowledged that the idea of rhyme first came to you as a pleasure via your mother. Can you speak a little bit about your home life as a child?
My father was a creature of the archaic world, really. He would have been entirely at home in a Gaelic hill-fort. His side of the family, and the houses I associate with his side of the family, belonged to a traditional rural Ireland. Also, nowadays, I am more and more conscious of him as somebody who was orphaned early on in life. His own father had died suddenly when he was quite young. His mother died of breast cancer. So he and his siblings were then fostered out and reared by aunts and uncles. My father grew up with three bachelor uncles, men who were in the cattle trade in a fairly substantial way, traveling back and forward to markets in the north of England, and it was from them that he learned the cattle trade. So the house where he spent his formative years was a place where there were no women, a place where the style was undemonstrative and stoical. All that affected him and, of course, it came through to us in his presence and his personality.
What about your mother?
Well, my mother was more a creature of modernity. Her people lived in the village of Castledawson, which was in some respects a mill village. Many of the people there worked in Clarke's linen factory. One of her uncles was a stoker in the factory, one of her brothers worked there too, another drove a bread van—held the franchise, as it were, for a Belfast bakery in that Castledawson area. One of her sisters trained as a nurse, another went off to England and was there during the war, married eventually to a miner from Northumberland. I suppose you could say my father's world was Thomas Hardy and my mother's D.H. Lawrence. Castledawson was that kind of terrace-house village, spic-and-span working class. And there was a nice social punctilio about the McCanns—that was my mother's family name; it came out in their concern with dress codes and table manners and things like that. They liked you to have your shoes polished and your hair combed. They had a little allotment garden out at the back and a washhouse with a set of wringers. And I suppose I would call the McCanns democrats. They had a strong sense of justice and civil rights and they were great argufiers. They genuinely and self-consciously relished their own gifts for contention and censoriousness. ...