DFA Staff Pick: Seamus Heaney reads from ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966)

DFA Staff Pick: Seamus Heaney reads from ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966)

Date: 04/02/2022 00:00

Seamus Heaney is Ireland’s most celebrated contemporary poet, but back in 1966 he was just starting out on his literary career and was afraid of ‘messing it up’. He had just published ‘Death of a Naturalist’, a collection which included many of his soon to be best-known and often recited poems, including ‘Mid-Term Break’ and ‘Digging’. The interview appropriately takes place outdoors, by a river, perhaps one that Heaney had written about. 

Charlie Witherspoon & Seamus Heaney

Charlie Witherspoon interviews the young poet, explaining to the audience that ‘Death of a Naturalist’ is not in fact a murder mystery, but a collection of poems. Seamus seems friendly and down to earth as he talks about early influences on his writing, and what made him choose to write poetry. He talks about his ancestors from rural South Derry and considers how different their lives were to his own. Their rural world is however a constant source of inspiration for the young poet who has now settled to live and work in the city of Belfast.

Seamus then reads his poem ‘Waterfall’ for the viewers. He employs ‘Sh’ sounds to recreate the sound of rushing water. He also makes striking use of vernacular words, like ‘burn’ and ‘slabber’ to establish the poem in its local setting.  This is a very special clip that allows us to see the poet talking about his work for the first time. He appears relaxed in front of the camera and speaks with a quiet confidence, as he looks into straight the camera as if speaking directly to the listener. Heaney comes across as astonishingly modest about his achievements.  He is of course is unaware that this first collection will go on to win several literary prizes and will continue to be read and enjoyed decades later.

Another clip of Heaney in the Digital Film Archive can be found here 

Browse the rest of the Digital Film Archive here