Seamus Heaney in 1970 © ITV/Shutterstock

In Seamus Heaney’s Nobel lecture of 1995, the newly crowned laureate paid his dues to his literary ancestors. Citing WB Yeats’ “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, he credits poetry with the power to “touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic nature of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed”.

The world in which Heaney wrote his 13 volumes of poetry, along with scores of essays, lectures and translations, could hardly have been more hostile to a sympathetic nature. Where Yeats, his predecessor as Ireland’s foremost poet (and Nobel winner), experienced a war of independence, civil war and the new Irish Free State, Heaney published his first collection on the eve of the Troubles that, from the late 1960s onwards, would cast Northern Ireland into a quarter-century of sectarian violence and divisive faultlines, from which intellectual life could claim no exemption.

In his compact biography, RF Foster delineates the path that Heaney navigated to emerge not only as one of Ireland’s greatest cultural figures, but with an appeal that traversed physical and ideological borders. As Foster, professor of Irish history and literature at Queen Mary University of London, acknowledges, “it is difficult to write about someone who wrote so well about himself”. But the autobiographical eloquence of Heaney’s poems allows Foster to write with the ease of a biographer whose subject is already well known among readers.

The book follows a straightforward chronology, lingering on periods of growth and change in Heaney’s writing and public life — particularly where they overlap with political pressures. Foster is wise to take a broad-strokes approach to Heaney’s childhood, which many readers will know in vivid detail from his poems: the child’s-eye view of farm work in “Follower”; the death of his brother in “Mid-Term Break”.

Yet on Belfast in the 1960s — and Heaney’s crucial early literary friendships around Queen’s University, where he was an undergraduate and later a member of the English faculty — the historian’s incisiveness comes to the fore. Depicting the city just before the Troubles, Foster admits, “images of a calm before a storm are inescapable. But it did not always seem like that at the time.”

Throughout his career, Heaney faced pressure from fellow nationalists to stamp his identity more firmly on his poetry. His wariness of becoming a spokesman didn’t keep his country’s history or the Troubles out of his work, by any means, but Foster points out where earlier drafts took a stronger political line than the poems that made the final cut.

Repeatedly, critics accused Heaney of evasiveness, or of trying to have it both ways — missing the point, it would seem, that this very caution was true to his upbringing. In his seminal collection North (1975), the poem “Whatever You Say Say Nothing” is all about the quiet codes necessary to maintain a peaceful coexistence in the tinderbox of a divided community: “Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared/ with us”.

Foster highlights another poem in the same collection, “Punishment”, which depicts the female victim of a killing not unlike the penalties doled out in 1970s Northern Ireland to local women who fraternised with enemy soldiers. Here, the poet presents himself: “I am the artful voyeur . . . who would connive/ in civilised outrage/ yet understand the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge.” It’s an arresting nod to the critics who equated an absence of overt condemnation with acquiescence.

Foster is insightful on the “contract” between Heaney and his readers, based “on a belief that he recorded something shared and essential, and that they knew he could be trusted”. His death in 2013, at 74, was met with a huge outpouring of grief. His public profile could be a burden, however; the Nobel was followed by what Heaney described as a “mostly benign avalanche” of interest and honours — which, Foster observes, came at a cost: suddenly, the poet’s time was “heavily compromised”, his reputation “irrevocably internationalised”.

There is something of Heaney’s amiable tone in Foster’s phrasing. On the begrudgement that came with success, he writes: “If ‘Sweeney’ rhymed significantly with ‘Heaney’, ‘famous’ rhymed too readily with ‘Seamus’ ”. But Foster guards against an excess of benevolence being imposed on the man or his work, crediting Heaney with “a darkening vision which has perhaps not fully had its due”. This exploration of Heaney’s oeuvre, and the tumultuous times that inspired it, is an immensely enjoyable step towards giving Ireland’s great poet his due.

On Seamus Heaney, by RF Foster, Princeton, RRP£14.99/$19.95, 248 pages

Maria Crawford is an FT commissioning editor

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