In accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, Mr. Heaney acknowledged another Irish Nobel laureate, William Butler Yeats, and the power of Yeats’s verse to define an Ireland beyond the violence of its independence almost a century ago. Mr. Heaney came to give voice to another period of violent upheaval that defined his native province of Ulster for much of his 50-year writing career.
The poet Robert Lowell called Mr. Heaney the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. The poet Paul Muldoon, a student of Mr. Heaney’s in the 1960s, said his mentor was “actually the most popular Irish poet ever,” although Mr. Heaney would have been indifferent to such ranking.
In 1999, Mr. Heaney’s acclaimed translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf” became an international bestseller.
Muldoon, a professor at Princeton and the New Yorker’s poetry editor, said he spoke this week to Mr. Heaney, who told him he was too ill to attend an event in England that the two were planning in September.
But his death was unexpected. “It really hasn’t struck me,” Muldoon said.
Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, said in a statement that “there are no words to describe adequately our nation’s and poetry’s grief at the passing of Seamus Heaney.”
Seamus Justin Heaney was born April 13, 1939, into a Catholic farming family in rural County Derry in Northern Ireland. There seemed no preordination of his literary success: His father kept and traded cattle; his mother raised nine children, of which Seamus was the oldest, in a small thatched cottage. It was a world where a lad was measured by farming skills, including the knack for slicing peat for drying and burning. He examined this paradox in his breakthrough poem of the mid-1960s, “Digging”: “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.”
Mr. Heaney (pronounced Heen-ee) spoke and wrote freely of the link between his life and his art and demonstrated an extraordinary power of observation and recall. He was interested in the formative experiences of other writers just as his boyhood presented abiding images that ran keenly through his work.
In addressing the Swedish Academy in 1995, he spoke of how his farmhouse became a sanctuary against a world at war (American troops were amassing near his home town), and how he could at once hear the family workhorse on the other side of the bedroom wall and the muffled voices of his elders elsewhere. The radio, with its disembodied voices in different accents, fed his innate interest in language and the spoken word.
When he would explore the fields, he logged other sensations that later provided color and metaphor for his verse and prose. He wrote of playing in the hollow of an old tree “and if you put your forehead to the rough pith you felt the whole lithe and whispering crown of willow moving in the sky above you. In that tight cleft, you sensed the embrace of light and branches, you were a little Atlas shouldering it all.”