A reading of a classic Heaney poem
‘Digging’ appeared in Seamus Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966. Like a number of the sonnets by Tony Harrison – who was born two years before Heaney – ‘Digging’ is about a poet-son’s relationship with his father and the sense that the working-class son, by choosing the vocation of the poet (but then who chooses it? It chooses them, we might say), is adopting a path very different from his father’s, and his father’s before him. You can read ‘Digging’ here; in this post we offer our analysis of the poem’s meaning, language, and effects.
In summary, ‘Digging’ sees Heaney reflecting on his father, who used to dig potato drills (shallow furrows in fields, into which the potato seeds can be planted) but now struggles to dig flowerbeds in his garden. The poet’s grandfather, he recollects, used to dig peat. And now he, the son and grandson, does not dig the earth at all – instead, he writes, with his ‘squat pen’ in his hand rather than a spade. And yet, Heaney concludes, he can use the pen to perform a different sort of ‘digging’ from that practised by his father and grandfather: he can use his pen to ‘dig’ into his past, the lives of his father and grandfather, and of Ireland more widely.
The poem’s structure is significant not least in the fact that it almost goes full-circle: Heaney begins with the pen in his hand, ‘snug as a gun’ – a suggestive simile, especially given the complementarity of ‘snug’ and the word it spells when reversed, ‘guns’. A gun is a weapon associated with ‘manly’ ideas of war (however misguidedly); a spade is associated with honest manual labour, such as that performed by the poet’s father and grandfather. But the pen is, by comparison, no weapon – yes, as the proverb has it, the pen is mightier than the sword (or the gun or the spade). Yet Heaney rejects this phrase at the end of the poem, replacing the formation ‘snug as a gun’ with a simple declarative sentence, which, unlike the opening of the poem, is set apart on its own line, inviting a pause (and giving us pause for thought?) before he decides, ‘I’ll dig with it.’ The final three words in this four-word declaration of semi-independence proclaim themselves in blunt and direct monosyllables, each one using the flat ‘i’ sound to suggest a no-nonsense approach to the art of writing poetry that will enable Heaney to remain true to his origins. The pen goes from being ‘snug’ (albeit dangerously so, like a gun) to being a tool or implement comparable in hearty usefulness and labour to the spades used by his father and forefathers.
But given that the subject of ‘Digging’ is comparing the art of writing poetry with working with the earth, it is the poem’s ultimate triumph that it provides such a vivid and technically effective description of potato-digging through deft deployment of the tools of Heaney’s trade: alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia. Consider the satisfying sounds of the ‘squelch and slap’, the sound of the words when spoken, as a way of bringing to life the noise of the soggy peat as his grandfather dug into the earth, or the harsh no-nonsense alliteration of ‘curt cuts’, or the pun that we can softly unearth within ‘living roots’, suggesting Heaney’s roots in his family of hardy diggers. We might even say that ‘Digging’ is not merely about becoming a poet in order to delve into one’s own history: the poem itself enacts such an act of delving.
‘Digging’ is a poem that repays close analysis because of such local effects. It’s one of Seamus Heaney’s first great triumphs as a poet and is one of his finest achievements.
Image: Seamus Heaney in the studio with his portrait by Colin Davidson. Painted in 2013. Via Frankenthalerj on Wikimedia Commons.
Here is an analysis of the poem Digging by Seamus Heaney. Heaney was an Irish playwright, poet, and academic; he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Heaney’s career was both prolific and successful. In 1966, he published his first major work, Death of a Naturalist, in which this poem is included. Three years later, he published his second volume of poetry, Door into the Dark. By this time, Heaney was already receiving critic acclaim for his writing, and a slew of academic lectures followed. While many of his poems can be construed as being political in nature, the majority of his poems fall under the category of naturalism; many of the images in his poem are taken from his surroundings in Northern Ireland. Heaney died on August 30, 2013, after a short illness.
Summary of Digging
This poem is autobiographical in nature. The speaker, presumably Heaney, is sitting at his writing desk, preparing to write, when he hears his father working in the garden outside. This conjures memories of the speaker as a young boy, listening and watching as his father digs in the potato garden. The speaker marvels at how well his father digs, which conjures an even older memory of his grandfather, his father’s father, completing the arduous task of digging through peat moss. Toward the end of the poem, the speaker writes as though he can smell the potatoes from the garden and the peat moss his grandfather has dug. He confesses that he does not have a spade like the two generations before him, but he does have a pen which he will use to “dig.”
The poem, which can be read in full here, is comprised of eight stanzas of varying length. There is no set rhyme scheme, though some of the lines do rhyme.
The first stanza contains only two lines. The speaker is focusing on the pen in his hand. Heaney utilizes a simile, telling the reader the pen rests “snug as a gun.” The reference to a gun is no coincidence: Heaney expects the reader to infer that the pen is his instrument, his weapon. This idea will repeat itself in the last stanza of the poem.
In the second stanza, the speaker hears the sound of his father’s garden spade sinking “into gravelly ground.” He gazes down at his father while he works in the garden. There is no punctuation at the end of the last line in stanza two, the thought is continued into the third stanza.
Heaney utilizes a flashback quite cleverly in the third stanza. The speaker is suddenly transported to twenty years ago, watching his father complete the same task.
The fourth stanza is rich in description, as the speaker paints the image of his father digging through the potato beds.
The fifth stanza is comprised of just two simple lines as the speaker marvels at his father. The reader is then transported even further through time as the speaker then conjures images of his grandfather performing a similar task.
The eight lines contained in the sixth stanza are the longest in the poem. The first two lines read:
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Here, the reader gets a glimpse into the setting of the poem. In Ireland, peat moss has been used as an alternative to coal. Cutting turf is an incredibly grueling task, and the fact that Heaney claims his grandfather could cut more than any other man signifies not only the physical strength of his grandfather, but Heaney’s own admiration for the hard work his grandfather was able to do by himself.
He then shares an anecdote with his reader as he describes encountering his grandfather out on the bog one day. The speaker describes a day when he brought a bottle of milk to his grandfather. Heaney’s grandfather barely stops his work, quickly drinking the milk and then returning to digging and cutting.
The seventh stanza returns the reader to the present day, as the speaker sits at his writing desk.
The memories are so vivid and alive in the speaker that he can actually smell the freshly dug potatoes and the “soggy peat”. He can hear the sound the peat made as it was cut. The speaker realizes that unlike his father and grandfather, he has no spade to follow in their footsteps.
What he does have, however, is revealed in the eighth and final stanza, which contains only three lines. Much is contained in these three simple lines. First, Heaney uses repetition, as once again, he describes holding his pen between his finger and thumb.
Heaney’s diction here is also curious, as he uses the word “squat” to describe his instrument. While it can describe the physical appearance of the pen itself, Heaney could also be showing the connection between himself and his father and grandfather, both of whom would have to squat in order to properly dig for the potatoes and peat moss. The last line, “I’ll dig with it,” signifies that while Heaney realizes his instrument is different from previous generations, he is still completing an arduous task. While his father and grandfather dug for potatoes and moss, he is digging for the right word, constantly attempting to create sustenance through his words.
Historical Significance of Digging
While this poem certainly is not political in nature, it does give a glimpse into the lives of hardworking Irishmen. In previous generations, men had to dig for both food and fuel. Because Ireland does not have a wealth of coal, men often had to dig through the bogs to acquire enough peat moss that could be burned as an alternative means of fuel.