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Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

Detail of Seamus Heaney's book jacket photo by Virginia Schendler, from Selected Poems 1966-1987

On exhibit September 27 - October 21, 2013

In honor of the late poet Seamus Heaney, the Penn Libraries is hosting a small display of first editions of his work that are part of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library collections.

When Seamus Heaney died this past August, The New York Times noted that he "was often called the greatest poet since Yeats." Whether his work needs any such comparison is unclear. He was certainly one of the greatest poets of his own era and -- to the extent that anyone can predict -- his work has the strength and the beauty to go on being read as long as poetry in English is read at all.

In his last years, following a stroke in 2006, he was asked what he might like to see as his epitaph. Heaney cited his own translation from Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, which he used when his friend, the Polish poet CzesEaw MiEosz, died in 2004. Telling of the old king's death and disappearance into the earth, the messenger in Sophocles' play says, "Wherever that man went, he went gratefully." That, Heaney said, would do for him, too.

Born in 1939 near Castledawson in County Derry, Heaney grew up on his family's farm and graduated from Queen's University, Belfast. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. Five years later, as the commencement speaker at the University of Pennsylvania, he called the "experience of living in a closely knit, ethnically homogeneous, hermetically sealed culture . . . everywhere a thing of the past." Addressing graduates "living in the world of the year 2000," he added that their lives would permit them to "inhabit several different psychic and cultural levels at the same time. And the marvelous thing about us as human beings is that we have been provided with a whole system of intellectual and imaginative elevators that whisk us from floor to floor, at will and on whim."

In "Digging," using a slight variation on elevators, Heaney wrote about his vocation as a poet:

My grandfather cut more turf in a day 
Than any other man on Toner's bog. 
Once I carried him milk in a bottle 
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up 
To drink it, then fell to right away 
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods 
Over his shoulder, going down and down 
For the good turf. Digging. 
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap 
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge 
Through living roots awaken in my head. 
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.