Seamus Heaney: Finding beauty in a scarred homeland

Seamus Heaney, here in 1999, died in Dublin Friday.

The New York Times/file

Seamus Heaney, here in 1999, died in Dublin Friday.

Seamus Heaney cast a long shadow, even for a man who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetry. His crisp, simple style and vivid natural imagery won him a broad following. Yet the simplicity of his language also laid bare the contradictions at the heart of modern Ireland.

This is why Heaney’s death Friday in Dublin after a short illness was such a profound loss. Born Catholic in Protestant-controlled Northern Ireland, Heaney experienced firsthand the inequality that has scarred his home for generations. But he failed to let that trauma define him. While his work is deeply critical of British rule, he was also outspoken in his love of English culture. He refused to be pigeonholed by sectarian divides; instead, his poetry embodied the reconciliation between Ireland and Britain that Northern Ireland is still working to achieve.

Heaney spent much of his career teaching at Harvard, and the sight of the white-haired Nobel laureate stalking in and out of Harvard Yard connected him indelibly to the Boston area in the eyes of many fans. Like his poetry, Heaney transcended national boundaries.

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