Seamus Heaney: Poems & Biography

Instructor: Tara Turzi
In this lesson, you will learn about Irish poet Seamus Heaney. The lesson will focus on his life as a poet and professor. You will also learn about his works, including poems ~'Mid-Term Break~' and ~'Digging.~' This lesson will also discuss his impact on present-day British Literature.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was an Irish poet and professor. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature and published several volumes of poetry in his lifetime. Heaney's poetry often deals with themes of nature, family, and politics, and has the unique quality of being well-received by both critics and common readers.

Seamus Heaney

Early Life and Education

Seamus Heaney was born in Northern Ireland in 1939. He was the eldest of nine children and lived on a farm. At age twelve, he won a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school, which removed him from the farm life he knew and introduced him to the world of education and poetry. Heaney eventually studied English Language and Literature and trained to be a teacher. As a student, Heaney was influenced by the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh and soon began to write his own poetry.

Professional Life

Heaney worked as a teacher in Belfast while publishing his poetry in local magazines. Heaney published his first book of poems in 1965 entitled Eleven Poems. A year later his Death of a Naturalist was published, receiving critical acclaim. Heaney continued to lecture at various colleges and universities, eventually becoming a professor at both Harvard University and the University of Oxford. Heaney would go on to publish several more volumes of poetry and prose, eventually winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.


Heaney's poetry often dealt with themes of nature and the struggles of his Irish upbringing. His early work reveals his interest in the natural world in poems like 'Digging' and 'Death of a Naturalist.' He was also able to draw in the common reader with themes of family life and death. Poems such as 'Mid-Term Break' and 'Clearances' are memorials to his brother, who died at age three, and his mother. Heaney also used the violent political backdrop of Ireland in his works, including 'Casualty' and 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.'

'Mid-Term Break'

'Mid-Term Break' tells the story of Heaney's first experience with death. His younger brother died at age three, and this poem explores this heart-wrenching experience of loss. It takes the reader on a journey from Heaney's receiving the news at college, to greeting relatives at the wake, to viewing the body and accepting the reality that his little brother has died. Heaney's use of common language and themes in works like this give his poetry the emotion and accessibility that make it so popular with readers and critics alike.


'Digging' contrasts the life of a farmer with the life of a writer. Heaney likens his father's spade to the pen with which he is writing, saying 'But I've no spade to follow men like them./Between my finger and thumb/The squat pen rests./I'll dig with it.' While Heaney considers his father's life's work worthwhile, his own life's work is too. He uses his pen to produce poetry in the way that his father's spade produced crops for his own family. Heaney's poem says it is valid to be a farmer, and it is valid to be a writer. He gives himself permission to respectfully move away from the life with which he grew up, and to embrace his chosen profession, a conflict that many readers may have experienced themselves.

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