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Skidmore College
First-Year Experience

2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes
Seamus Heaney

by Prof. Patricia Rubio, Foreign Languages & Literatures

The Swedish Academy of Letters awarded Seamus Heaney the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” Many consider him “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.” As a native of Northern Ireland – he was born in the outskirts of Belfast, on April 13, 1939 – Heaney’s work has been controversial because, in engaging his country’s difficult and painful recent history, he has focused on its ambiguities and uncertainties. Although himself a Catholic, he has written about Northern Island’s conflict from the perspectives of the Protestant and the Catholic, the political and the personal. His childhood and early youth at Mossbawn, his father’s small potato farm in rural County Derry, also had a lasting effect on his poetic work; a critic writes that it is the “country of the mind where much of his poetry is grounded.” Indeed, his poetry digs deeply in the landscape and heritage of his native land which he has repeatedly recognized as its subject and source.

Heralded as one of the most popular poets currently writing in English, Heaney has published more than a dozen books of poetry, beginning with Eleven Poems in 1965 and Death of a Naturalist in 1966, which earned him the E.C. Gregory Award, the Cholmondeley Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Famer Memorial Prize. He has also been the recipient of several honorary degrees: he is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters, Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, and a Foreign Member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Heaney is also an accomplished essayist, literary critic and translator (see bibliography). In the late 1980s he wrote The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes which was produced by Field Day, a theater company with which he has been affiliated since its inception in 1980.

Parallel to his career as a writer, Heaney has also pursued a career in higher education. At St. Columb’s College (Ireland) he taught Latin, Irish and Anglo-Saxon; he was a lecturer at Queen’s College (1966-1972), visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley (1970-1971), Head of the English Department at Carysfort College in Dublin, and finally since 1984, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, one of the most prestigious appointments at Harvard University. In 1989 he was appointed Professor of Poetry at Oxford.