By: Michael Kenneally, June 2002
Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Seamus Heaney, Irish poet, playwright, essayist and Nobel Laureate.
Over the past thirty years, Seamus Heaney has established himself as a writer whose work has not only been critically acclaimed but avidly read by thousands of admirers in Ireland and throughout the world. While his poetry is complex and challenging it also creates for readers that "shock of recognition" which John Keats claimed to be the hallmark of all great writing. From the beginning, Seamus Heaney's poetry has explored the imaginative crossroads where personal experience, place, history and memory intersect.
Born the first of nine children on the family farm in Mossbawn, County Deny, Seamus Heaney became intimately aware of the wonder and stern demands of the natural world; as a consequence, his poetic sensibility, like that of William Wordsworth, was "fostered alike by beauty and by fear."
As a child, he was impressed by the quiet talents and authoritative strengths of his father, and simultaneously appreciated the ready emotion and expressive language of his mother. Those opposites have been fundamental to the internal discourse out of which his poetry has arisen. His poem, "Harvest Bow," speaks across the generation from son to father but also is generous in its acceptance of difference, in its ready acknowledgment of creative impulses other than the ordering of words.
In "Clearances," a series of sonnets that is a moving memorial to his mother, Seamus Heaney conjures up powerfully evocative moments within a luminous, indeed golden glow of recollection, and yet they equally confront the empty spaces that death leaves behind.
As a writer who came to maturity during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Seamus Heaney was dramatically confronted with the essential question faced by all artists: How to be true to one's own artistic integrity while also speaking out as a citizen in a society fractured by tribal conflicts. On the one hand, he has suffered the tug and pull of sectarian allegiance, while on the other, he has asserted the need for a humane and reasoned response based on those eternal verities that transcend narrow claims of a specific time and place.
On these and other levels, then, Seamus Heaney' s poetry is a dialogue that intentionally accommodates the claims of competing inner voices. And the aesthetic unity of his work derives from the success with which he connects the soundings of his inner ear with the urgings of individual consciousness. It is his great talent that his poetry resonates on different wavelengths and consequently appeals to readers from Japan to Brazil, from Ireland to Canada.
The rural County Derry of his youth is the geographical polar star of Seamus Heaney's poetic inspiration; but that impulse is frequently counter-balanced by the strength and daring with which his poetry also moves back and forth through history, and probes beyond the physical to the transcendent. The linguistic verve with which his poetry responds to the fault lines of a fragmented world means that Seamus Heaney is very much a poet for our globalized and postmodern reality.
Seamus Heaney is also an astute and sensitive critic, and an imaginative playwright. He has also given us a masterful translator of the Old English Classic, Beowulf, which won the Whitbread Award. Over his career, he has generously contributed his time and reputation to the promotion of cultural and educational causes in Ireland and abroad. He has served as the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In a review of Seamus Heaney's most recent collection of poetry, Bernard O'Donoghue, his fellow countryman, poet and professor at Oxford, wrote: "that we, his readers, are lucky to be alive when he is writing."
Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of the Senate and the Board of Governors, it is my privilege and an honour to present to you, Dr. Seamus Heaney, so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
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