Students, Professors Celebrate Life of Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney Memorial
Zorigoo Tugsbayar

Keir D. GoGwilt, a postgraduate fellow, plays a song during Seamus J. Heaney’s memorial service at Memorial Church. Semuas J. Heaney, a former Harvard professor, won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature and passed away Aug. 30, 2013 in Dublin, Ireland.

Professors, students, family, and friends came together on Thursday to remember the life of former Harvard English professor, Harvard poet-in-residence, and Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Seamus Heaney.

“I thought [the service] was wonderful,” said English professor emeritus Joseph C. Harris, who also contributed to Heaney’s best-selling translation of “Beowulf.” “The poems selected were a marvelous selection of Seamus’s huge corpus.”

The service, held at Memorial Church, commemorated the Irish poet, who died Aug. 30, 2013. The program featured students and colleagues of Heaney reciting his poetry, including “Alphabets,” “The Master,” and excerpts from his translation of “Beowulf,” musical performances, and reflections on Heaney’s life and time at Harvard.

“He was extraordinarily insightful and generous,” said English professor and long-time colleague and friend, Helen H. Vendler. “Everyone who met him found it memorable to meet him.”

For K.E. Duffin ’76, studying with Heaney was a “life-changing experience,” and one that shaped her eventual decision to become a poet.


“Heaney was a tremendous mentor and friend to me,” Duffin said. “As a teacher, he was encouraging but also had the highest standards for his students.”

Heaney became a professor at Harvard in 1981 and was associated with the university, filling positions from professor to poet-in-residence, for 25 years. Many have praised Heaney for his contributions to Harvard and to the field of English.

“He made Old English poetry very well known,” Harris said. “He increased the profile of poetry in general, really.”

In addition to teaching at Harvard, Heaney had a room at Adams House and resided there for one semester each year. Robert J. Kiely, master of Adams House from 1973-1999, spoke during the service about Heaney’s contribution to the house community. When Heaney won his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 while abroad in Greece, Kiely broke the news to Adams House students, saying the crowd “cheered so loudly [Heaney] could hear it in Athens.”

“He immediately had a sense of the students,” Vendler said. “He had such a wonderful presence for such a long time with so many generations of students.”

Heaney’s poetry often focused on, and was inspired by, his homeland of Northern Ireland. Heaney also composed prose pieces and translated—for example, his modern translation of the epic “Beowulf” was widely praised.

Teresa Iverson, a writer who attended the event, said that Heaney’s presence on campus “really drew people to Harvard, who were not directly affiliated, but would come to listen in on Heaney.”

Many said they will remember Heaney for not only his poetry, but also his unique personality.

“He was a genius who also happened to be a wonderful human being, which is an extremely rare combination,” said Duffin.