Awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, Seamus Heaney was one of most prolific poets and playwrights of recent times. Born in County Londonderry in Northern Ireland in 1939, in his lifetime he published numerous poetry collections to great critical acclaim, with a fellow Nobel Literature Laureate, Robert Lowell, describing him as 'the most important Irish poet since Yeats'.
Heaney tackles a number of themes in his work, above all that of the history of his family and the history of Northern Ireland. In one of his most famous poems, 'Digging', he touchingly explores the similarities between his vocation as poet and the agricultural focus of life amongst previous generations of men in his family. His description of 'Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun' points to another focus of his poetry: the history of conflict between Ireland and Northern Ireland. In poems including 'Requiem for the Croppies', 'Punishment' and 'North', Heaney explores the 'spilled blood', as he describes in 'North', that was the result of the Troubles, a low-level conflict that took place in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and whose effects spilled over onto the UK mainland, between Irish republicans, who wanted to see a free Ireland, and Irish loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, by digging deeper into European history and alluding to the situation in Ireland.
Aside from the violence that affected the lives of many Northern Irish and Irish citizens on a frequent basis, Heaney also writes a lot about Irish heritage and traditions. In poems like 'Blackberry Picking', Heaney reminisces about the simplicity of what he used to do as a child, growing up in a rural part of Northern Ireland. His poems frequently touch on human interaction with the natural world; his description of 'jellied specks' and 'slime kings' in one of his best-known poems, 'Death of a Naturalist', evoke childhood memories and also suggest a sense of mournfulness and regret at the rapidly changing nature of the world, where children are found surfing the Internet more often than they are found exploring forests and the countryside.
Whilst sometimes reflective and meditative in his oeuvre, Heaney is, at other times, very open with his readers. The suddenness with which he describes learning of the death of his younger brother in 'Mid-Term Break' reflects the fact that it was the first time he was exposed to the cruelty of the world and hints at the loss of childhood innocence after all those days spent picking blackberries and enjoying discovering more about the Irish landscape into which he was born.
Dealing with a variety of important and interesting themes, Heaney's poetic oeuvre remains one of the most prolific, even after his death in 2013. His attention to linguistic and cultural detail makes his work exciting not only to read but also to analyse, as readers try and decipher the various allusions he makes to other works of literature and historical events. A winner of a plethora of literary prizes during his career, Heaney stands as one of the giants of twentieth and twenty-first century iterature in the English language, and he is a giant from whom we can learn much about the nature of life, loss and recovery.