Seamus Heaney's death 'leaves breach in language itself'

Tributes flow in from fellow writers after poet who won Nobel prize for literature dies in Dublin aged 74

He was a snowy-haired, craggy mountain of a man; a man who radiated granite integrity and deep kindness. He was a poet, among the greatest of our era, and the first of his nation to win the Nobel prize since Yeats.

Seamus Heaney, who has died in hospital in Dublin, aged 74, leaves family, friends and readers in Ireland and beyond "feeling personally bereaved", in the words of his longtime friend, the poet Michael Longley. "Just as his presence filled a room, his marvellous poems filled the hearts of generations of readers."

Carol Ann Duffy, Britain's poet laureate, said that for his "brothers and sisters in poetry … he came to be the poet we all measured ourselves against and he demonstrated the true vocational nature of his art for every moment of his life. He is irreplaceable." For poet Don Paterson, "the death of this beloved man seems to have left a breach in the language itself".

Heaney, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1995, an experience he likened to "being caught up in a mostly benign avalanche", was born shortly before the start of the second world war into a farming family in Castledawson, County Derry.

His first collection of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, was published in 1966; numerous others followed, including North (1975), the Haw Lantern (1987) and his 12th and final collection, Human Chain (2010). He was marinated in the language and landscape of his native Derry, as well as in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, the Greeks and the Romans: his translation of Beowulf (2000) was especially highly acclaimed.

The defining fact of his poetry has been the complexities, tragedies and traumas of 20th-century Irish history. An Ulster-born Catholic who in the 1970s moved south to Wicklow and later Dublin (and who also spent many years teaching at Harvard), he resisted attempts to co-opt him, preferring to "tell all the truth but tell it slant", to borrow a line from Emily Dickinson.

His Nobel address manifested the poet's struggle in the face of intractable, bloody history. What "always will be to poetry's credit", he wrote, is "the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it".

The poet Paul Muldoon, as a 16-year-old, was encouraged in his writing by the 28-year-old Heaney, and later went on to study with him at Queen's University, Belfast. He said: "He managed in ways that are more or less unheard of to be a poet and a public figure, but one who was never involved in propaganda. He always tried to be true to whatever the moment might be. It was in many ways a difficult role: people looked to him almost as one might to the Delphic Oracle."

Frank McGuinness, the Irish playwright, said: "During the darkest days of the Northern Ireland conflict he was our conscience: a conscience that was accurate and precise in how it articulated what was happening.

"His poems are a brilliant record of what Ireland went through, and to produce it he must have gone through many trials. He carried enormous burdens for us and he helped us. He was a great ally for the light … he was the greatest Irishman of my generation: he had no rivals."

Politicians from both sides of the border praised the poet. Michael D Higgins, the president of the Irish Republic, said: "The presence of Seamus was a warm one, full of humour, care and courtesy – a courtesy that enabled him to carry with such wry Northern Irish dignity so many well-deserved honours from all over the world." The taioseach, Enda Kenny, said that his death "brings great sorrow to Ireland, to language and to literature".

Heaney was a strong supporter of the peace process in Northern Ireland, memorably paying tribute to the architects of the Good Friday agreement, the then leaders of nationalism and unionism John Hume (whom he dubbed "the hedgehog") and David Trimble ("the fox").

The leader of the Ulster Unionist party, Mike Nesbitt, recalled: "Bill Clinton chose Heaney's great phrase about when 'hope and history rhyme' from The Cure at Troy [the poet's translation of Sophocles' play Philoctetes] in his speech in Londonderry in 1995."

Clinton said: "Both his stunning work and his life were a gift to the world. His mind, heart, and his uniquely Irish gift for language made him our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives and a powerful voice for peace. And he was a good and true friend."

Fellow writers paid tribute to the poet's sheer human warmth. "Seamus never had a sour moment, neither in person nor on paper," said the playwright Tom Stoppard. "You couldn't help loving him any more than you could help reading on from the first line."

Younger writers bore witness to his generosity. Gerald Dawe, poet and professor of literature at Trinity College Dublin, said he was "like an older brother who encouraged you to do the best you could do". Matthew Hollis, a poet and Heaney's editor at the publisher Faber, recalled being encouraged by Heaney when he sent him poems as a young man.

He called him "a man of hearthside, personal kindness. Within the poetry world he was a father figure: the head of our poetry household … Above all he was a great friend to poetry; showing countless readers what was possible in language, encouraging us to dig a little deeper, to break the skin of our consciousness and our articulacy." The poet Lavinia Greenlaw added: "To receive his warmth and encouragement was like receiving something from the sun."

In his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, Heaney included a poem called Digging – a manifesto, of sorts, for the poet who was also the scion of farmers. "I've no spade to follow men like them," he wrote. But the poem goes on, with the kind of dogged ferocity that all great writers share: "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I'll dig with it."


Charlotte Higgins and Henry McDonald in Dublin

The GuardianTramp

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