Seamus Heaney was recognized as a successor of W. B. Yeats, the Irish poet and playwright who gained acclaim for his work in the 20th century. Both writers were deeply interested in preserving and mythologizing the history of Ireland and their own ancestral foundations. However, Heaney was able to forge his own path and voice as an Irish writer and as a Modern poet. His particular location of interest is the bog. This parallels how Yeats created a symbolic landscape from the County Sligo, a town in Northern Ireland where Yeats spent holidays as a child. Heaney's writing, on the other hand, found sensual beauty in the earthier landscapes that his work inhabits.
Heaney's perspective on Yeats changed markedly over time, which in turn reflected how Heaney developed as a poet. In his first collection of prose, Preoccupations, Heaney describes Yeats through the lens of masculinity. Yeats represented to Heaney "the otherness of art from life," and Heaney saw Yeats' work as masterful and manipulative, refusing all truths in favor of its own. In his earlier writing, Heaney admired the ways in which Yeats' work gave "whole-hearted assent to the natural cycles of living and dying," at times ritualizing that assent, that surrender. A decade later, in Heaney's 1989 work The Place of Writing, he returns to Yeats, lauding the self-sufficiency of Yeats' writing, the writer's deliberate adherence to structure.
In Heaney's mind, Yeats existed in opposition to poets like William Wordsworth, the English Romantic poet. In Heaney's 1988 essay on Wordsworth, he posits that Wordsworth's writing after 1795 was largely a retreat into the adult consciousness, the retrieval of an earlier self achieved by crossing into the past in a way that denies straightforward narrative and temporality. In 1978 Heaney characterized Wordsworth's writing as a type of plowing, conducting an energy not entirely its own.
In Heaney's 1991 collection of poetry Seeing Things, he draws inspiration from classic depictions of life after death while coming to terms with the death of his father. In Seeing Things, Heaney gives poetic power to the characters who are fixed and unmoving; poets are passive receivers of energy which they are then tasked with translating. With Yeats and Wordsworth giving two opposing ideals of what a poet should look like, Heaney seems to find a delicate balance. He is the conduit of a poetic power beyond his grasp or understanding, yet he steers the ship.