Nobel laureate to speak

Irish poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, will deliver the main address at Penn’s 244th Commencement ceremony on May 22.

His Nobel Prize citation praised his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Heaney is considered one of the titans of contemporary poetry and modern Irish literature. His poems explore the linguistic heritage of the English language, the human condition, the star-crossed history of his native land and his own journey though life.

His new translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf” is currently a best-seller in Great Britain and the United States.

The selection of Heaney as Commencement speaker marks a departure from the recent tradition of choosing prominent public figures and celebrities to deliver the Commencement address.

Lynn Hollen Lees, professor of history, was one of many who were delighted with Heaney’s selection. “I’ve been a fan of his poetry for several decades now, and his skill with the English language makes reading him a definite delight,” she said. “The early history of Ireland has also been an explicit theme in his work, and I’m glad I will be able to go to Commencement this year to hear him speak.

“I’m delighted that Penn and the committee who chose him were able to get him, and that the committee put a man of such brilliance and stature on the list.”

English Professor John Richetti was similarly enthusiastic. “He’s the successor to the Irish literary tradition of James Joyce and Yeats,” he said. “In fact, it’s like Yeats coming to deliver the Commencement speech.”

Born to a rural family in County Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1939, Heaney left the farm for good in 1951 when he won a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school in the city of Derry. From there, he went to Queen’s University, Belfast, where he taught from 1966 to 1972. In that year, he gave up full-time teaching to pursue the writer’s life in the Irish Republic. He now lives in Dublin with his wife and three children and spends each spring at Harvard University, where he is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence.

In addition to his nine books of original poetry, Heaney has written numerous essays and one play.

Heaney’s selection was announced by President Judith Rodin March 27.


Originally published on April 6, 2000