Cropping the hesitant pen name ‘Incertus’, under which the young Seamus Heaney published his first attempts at poetry, Roy Foster titles the opening chapter of his study of Heaney ‘Certus’. Foster is keen to stress, for all Heaney’s shows of diffidence, how firmly on his way he was from the outset, and how fuelled by purpose and ambition. From the early days in Philip Hobsbaum’s workshop at Queen’s University Belfast, he was a marked man. An expression of interest from Charles Monteith of Faber & Faber in 1965 accelerated Heaney’s work on Death of a Naturalist. Within a year the book was published, and the long march towards the Nobel Prize had begun.
All this was before the Northern Irish Troubles, but within a decade Heaney had published three further volumes, the last of which, North (1975), became one of the defining responses to that conflict. Heaney’s sense of his beleaguered position