Seamus Heaney was born on this day in 1939. He is an Irish poet, playwright, translator, lecturer, and Nobel Prize winner (for Literature in 1995). Heaney was both the Harvard and the Oxford Professor of Poetry and in 1996 was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres.
He’s regarded as one of the finest poets of the twentieth century. Fellow poet Robert Lowell called him “the most important Irish poet since Yeats” and others, such as the British academic John Sutherland, have hailed Heaney as “the greatest poet of our age”.
In the essay published in Les Prix Nobel (The Nobel Prizes) 1995, states:
Heaney’s poems first came to public attention in the mid-1960s when he was active as one of a group of poets who were subsequently recognized as constituting something of a “Northern School” within Irish writing. Although Heaney is stylistically and temperamentally different from such writers as Michael Longley and Derek Mahon (his contemporaries), and Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson (members of a younger Northern Irish generation), he does share with all of them the fate of having be en born into a society deeply divided along religious and political lines, one which was doomed moreover to suffer a quarter-century of violence, polarization and inner distrust. This had the effect not only of darkening the mood of Heaney’s work in the 1970s, but also of giving him a deep preoccupation with the question of poetry’s responsibilities and prerogatives in the world, since poetry is poised between a need for creative freedom within itself and a pressure to express the sense of social obligation felt by the poet as citizen.
You can read more about Seamus Heaney here at Wikipedia, and in honor of National Poetry Month, you can read “Requiem for the Croppies,” about the 1798 Rebellion, right here.
“Croppies” was a term for United Irishmen who wore their hair close-cropped to mark their allegiance. Written in the voice of a dead croppy boy, the poem focues on the Battle of Vinegar Hill, where the rebels were defeated by the British and the bodies of 640 slaughtered insurgents were thrown into a mass grave and covered in quicklime. “Croppies Grave” is the monument over the mass grave that commemorates their deaths.
Heaney wrote “Requiem for the Croppies” in 1966 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916. However, as Neil Corcoran says in Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber), “Heaney celebrates not the Rising itself but what he considers its original seed in the rebellion of 1798.”
Requiem for the Croppies
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.