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Seamus Heaney, 74; Nobel-winning poet, taught at Harvard

Irish poet, playwright, essayist, and translator Seamus Heaney, who was awarded literature’s highest honor, the Nobel Prize, in 1995, and who taught at Harvard University for more than two decades, inspiring younger writers and poets on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, died in a Dublin hospital Friday after a brief illness, according to a statement released by his family and publisher. He was 74.

News of his death reverberated around the world — from the highest political and literary circles to the halls of academe to wherever poetry is savored — a testament to the power of Mr. Heaney’s art and to his personal charisma, both of which he employed to transcendent effect in the many public readings he gave, classes he taught, and deep friendships he forged.

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A prolific writer at once lyrical and political, soil-caked and soulful, classically learned and imbued with love of family, he was often compared to his Irish predecessor William Butler Yeats in carving out a stellar career comprising 13 collections of poetry, two plays, and several major translations, among his many other published works.

In praising Mr. Heaney, Irish president Michael D. Higgins said, “Scholars all over the world will have gained from the depth of the critical essays, and so many rights organizations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience.”

Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust released a statement saying: “We are fortunate and proud to have counted Seamus Heaney as a revered member of the Harvard faculty. For us, as for people around the world, he epitomized the poet as a wellspring of humane insight and artful imagination, subtle wisdom and shining grace.”

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On Friday, friends and colleagues described Mr. Heaney as “a life force” whose presence in the Boston-Cambridge area, his last visit coming this past March, was cause for celebration, literary and otherwise. Not only was he great fun to be around, they recalled, but his readings, like his published work, became wildly popular, attracting what the Harvard Gazette described on Friday as “Heaneyboppers.”

An Irish writer and poet, Seamus Heaney was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature on Dec. 10, 1995, in Stockholm.

Jan Collsioo/AFP/Getty Images/File 1995

An Irish writer and poet, Seamus Heaney was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature on Dec. 10, 1995, in Stockholm.

Former US poet laureate Robert Pinksy said his longtime friend particularly enjoyed the time he spent since first coming to teach at Harvard in 1979.

Mr. Heaney continued to teach there, in various capacities, until 2006, and was awarded an honorary degree in 1998. During his last official appearance at Harvard, in May 2012, he read a poem of his originally composed for the university’s 350th anniversary celebration in 1986.

“It was a bit of a refuge for him,” Pinksy said. “He gave me the feeling that in Dublin and London, the glare was constant and hard. Here he wasn’t quite as burdened by the spotlight, which wasn’t always pleasant.”

Pinsky likened Mr. Heaney to another Nobel winner, Polish poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz. Both “came from a small, intense literary culture to attain a global vision, the opposite of a provincial vision,” said Pinsky. Beyond that, he added, Mr. Heaney was “a mensch.”

In an e-mail, Sven Birkerts, editor of the literary journal AGNI and another longtime friend, wrote: “Seamus had what sometimes felt like an excess of kindness and readiness – it was always hard for many of us who knew him to believe that he was making time from such a busy life, and never making it seem like he was doing that.”

As a poet, Birkerts added, Mr. Heaney “was a true delver into the language. He went deep to the etymological places. He liked to tell (brag) that he’d won an Ireland-wide school competition in Latin. He had a wonderful family, and was able to live the intimate familial life.”

The poet Peter Sacks, who first met Mr. Heaney in Cambridge in the early 1980s, likewise mourned the loss of a cherished friend and towering literary figure. Mr. Heaney’s poetic gifts, Sacks said, rested on three primary pillars: a strong attachment to the organic, natural world; a keen sense of political justice, although never propagandistic; and an abiding belief in the capacity of the human spirit to renew itself.

Mr. Heaney “found love and joy in the world,” Sacks said, and each poem of his is “a discovery” that makes his work both aesthetically dense and accessible to a broad readership.

The poet Askold Melnyczuk met Mr. Heaney in the mid-1980s and recalled going to a party held at a spare, fourth-floor Cambridge apartment. When Mr. Heaney arrived, Melnyczuk asked where he’d been earlier that evening. Having dinner with the Japanese emperor and empress, Mr. Heaney replied, before joining the party with characteristic gusto.

“That was Seamus,” Melnyczuk said. “He had friends everywhere. I’ve never met another writer so universally admired.”

Seamus Justin Heaney was born April 13, 1939, on a family farm in Londonderry, in the western part of Northern Ireland, where his father, Patrick, was a farmer and cattle dealer. One of nine children in a large Catholic family, Mr. Heaney went on to Queens University in Belfast and later taught there before turning to writing full-time in 1972.

Mr. Heaney shared a laugh with then-Radcliffe president Matina Horner at Harvard in 1986.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File

Mr. Heaney shared a laugh with then-Radcliffe president Matina Horner at Harvard in 1986.

In 1966, he published his first poetry collection, “Death of a Naturalist,” which opens with one of his most famous poems, “Digging.” It portrays his father and grandfather digging peat and potatoes for a living and declares, prophetically: “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them./Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it.”

And dig he did, mining four more volumes of poetry over the next nine years, many alluding to the sectarian violence then ravaging his homeland. His oeuvre, and reputation, grew steadily thereafter. Among his most celebrated works are a fresh translation of “Beowulf,” and “The Cure at Troy,” a play based on Sophocles’s “Philoctetes.”

His Nobel citation praised Mr. Heaney’s “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

His last published collection, “Human Chain,” appeared in 2010. In 2006, Mr. Heaney suffered a stroke, after which he scaled back on his public commitments.

In addition to the Nobel, Mr. Heaney won numerous prizes over the course of his career, including the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, T.S. Eliot Prize, and the 2005 Irish PEN Award.

He leaves his wife, the former Marie Devlin, and three children, Christopher, Michael, and Catherine. Memorial service plans have yet to be announced.

Poet Jorie Graham, Harvard’s Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory (a title once held by Mr. Heaney), knew the poet well, as a friend and peer. “When death takes one of their great poets,” she wrote in an e-mail yesterday, “an event which happens only a few times in a century to any given people, there is always a terrifying silence that happens. Who will sing our soil, our inner secrets, our history, our transactions between these forces, our lives?”

Mr. Heaney’s passing is one such day, she observed. “But his words will not rest. His breath is alive and adamant and pure in them even now as we mourn the man. That is the genius of lyric poetry.”

AGNI senior editor William Pierce, who took a Harvard poetry writing seminar with Mr. Heaney in 1987, said the influence on his own fiction and essay writing has been profound. “He wanted to knock us all down from the sense that we were writing poetry, trying to find a word that might impress somebody,” Pierce recalled. “His word was ‘naturalness.’ He wanted us to think of poetry as a direct line to our emotions, not put on in any way.”

To celebrate Mr. Heaney’s 70th birthday, Irish broadcaster RTE aired a biography in which he was asked what his epitaph might be. At first reluctant to supply one, Mr. Heaney finally quoted from his own translation of Sophocles’s “Oedipus at Colonus,” in which one character remarks, “Wherever that man went, he went gratefully.”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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