In awarding the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature to Seamus Heaney, the Swedish Academy acknowledged the importance of Ireland to English letters, but struck a blow for poetry.
It is a small island of some 5 million souls, but this is Ireland's third Nobel Prize for Literature after the poet-playwright William Butler Yeats (1923) and the playwright Samuel Beckett (1969), the fourth if the playwright-essayist George Bernard Shaw (1925) is credited to the country of his birth. Ireland's contribution of talent that glorified the English more than the Irish language for centuries is immense.
But the real significance of this prize is that Mr. Heaney is a poet, a lyric poet, a simple if deep poet, an accessible poet -- but a pure poet. Not a widely produced playwright like the other Irish laureates and the West Indian Derek Walcott (1992). Not a political poet like the patriotic Yeats and the anti-patriotic Sean O'Casey (never Nobeled). He has written with great pain and Catholic identity about the troubles of Northern Ireland, but with wisdom and not in participation.
In his direct imagery from the County Derry farmland of his childhood -- "The cold smell of potato mould,/ the squelch and slap of soggy peat, . . ." Mr. Heaney does not resemble those earlier Irish bards so much as the American poet of New England soil, Robert Frost, who died in 1963 un-Nobeled.
Had the Swedish Academy wanted to make a political statement in this year's prize, it would have honored the obtuse novelist Salman Rushdie, who has offended the Muslim faithful and been condemned for it, so as to uphold the writer's right to blaspheme and live.
But the Swedish Academy chose instead to make a literary statement, that poetry matters, still. And to make it with the clarity and directness of a Heaney metaphor.