‘At a Potato Digging’ was published in 1966 and it was featured in ‘Death of a Naturalist‘, Heaney’s first major poetry collection. The poem consists of four sections that depict men’s relationship with the land. During the 1960s, Ireland’s farming relied mostly on manual labor, and, like in the 19th century, farmers depended on a single crop. Thus, ‘At a Potato Digging’ reflects Ireland’s total reliance on the potato crop.
Explore At a Potato Digging
‘At a Potato Digging’ explores the potato crop as an emblem of suffering, and how it evokes a moment of poverty and agony, such as the famine of the 1840s.
Other poems touching on the Great Irish Famine also include the likes of ‘Quarantine’ by Eavan Boland, although that is targeted at being more a love poem.
The different sections of the poem, with their different forms and tones, depict a complex portrait of Irish history and its roots. The main themes of the poem include nature, history, and suffering.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
The poem, as already mentioned, has four sections that vary in length and form. Particularly, part I has four quatrains with an ABAB CDCD rhyme scheme. Section II has a sonnet form, section III has five stanzas, and section IV has two quatrains.
A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.
The first stanza of ‘At a Potato Digging’ depicts a ‘present day’ harvesting sequence. The lyrical voice describes how workers operate in a potato field. Notice that, from the very beginning, the harvesting process is described as mechanized and harsh (“A mechanical digger wrecks the drill”).
The movements of the machine that works the field are described: “Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould”.
Nevertheless, the workers are depicted as being cooperative with the machine, as they “swarm in behind, stoop to fill/ Wicker creels”. In the description of the laborers, the harvesting process appears to be intense, manual, and traditional. The way in which the workers assist the machine relates them to the potato croppers of the past. Thus, the stanza presents a menacing atmosphere where “fingers go dead in the cold”. Although dealing with the present, this last line suggests circumstances that are similar to those of the famine.
Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand
The second stanza furthers the descriptions of the workers. The potato diggers are compared to crows “attacking crow-black fields”, reduced to the disorganized movements of birds (“A higgledy line from hedge to headland”).
There is a great use of alliteration in these first lines in order to emphasize the way in which the men work next to the mechanical digger. This lack of organization continues to be described, accentuated by the use of military terms, “Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch/ A full creel to the pit and straighten”. The lyrical voice uses vivid descriptions so that the reader can visualize the situation clearly.
Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
Mother. Processional stooping through the turf
As in the previous lines, the third stanza extends the description of the workers in the potato field. The labor is ceaseless, as the potato diggers “soon tumble back/To fish a new load from the crumbled surf”. Once again, the harvesting process is seen as harsh and intense for the workers, just as it was in the past.
All of the laborers’ efforts are put towards the operation of the machine and the harvest acquires a religious tone as the potato diggers revere “the black Mother” (the field). This activity is given the name of “Processional stooping” which conveys the idea of a procession with both a religious and a pagan connotation.
Recurs mindlessly as autumn. Centuries
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
The final stanza of Part I furthers the idea of the “Processional stooping”. Notice that, throughout ‘At a Potato Digging’, the stanzas are linked together as they continue and expand the idea of the previous one. This activity is presented as continued unquestionably and inevitably (“Recurs mindlessly as autumn”). The idea of autumn refers not only to the harvest season, but to the fall of leaves, and the history surrounding that particular moment of the year.
The lyrical voice remembers the past and, especially, the famine: “Centuries/Of fear and homage to the famine god”. The “Processional stooping” described as the potato harvesting, with its annual, endured, and religious form, refers to the dependence that this particular community has on the potato due to its previous history.
There are more explicit religious references such as “famine god”, “humbled”, and “seasonal altar”. This is because there is a need for these workers to worship the land and not take the harvest for granted (“Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,/Make a seasonal altar of the sod”), as they did at the moment of the famine.
Flint-white, purple. They lie scattered
like inflated pebbles. Native
to the black hutch of clay
where the halved seed shot and clotted
these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem
the petrified hearts of drills. Split
by the spade, they show white as cream.
The second section of the poem focuses on what the potatoes look like after they’ve been taken out of the ground. The poet uses a great deal of lyrical and image-rich language in these lines to help readers visualize what the worker do with the potatoes after they come out of the ground as well as the look of the potatoes themselves.
The potatoes around haphazardly. The poet focuses on the colors, including white and purple, as well as the potato shape. He compares them to “inflated pebbles.” They came from the ground as stones do.
If one of these was cut in half, tubers grow from inside and develop. When split open, the potatoes are “white as cream,” a simile that helps convey the purpose of the potatoes (as a food source) and the farmer’s need for the potatoes as a source of income.
Good smells exude from crumbled earth.
To be piled in pits; live skulls; blind-eyed.
The potatoes lay in anticipation of what’s going to come next. The image of the potatoes is transformed in the next lines (connecting to Heaney’s “soul” reference). He writes about the potatoes piled in pits the “live skulls, blind eyes” at the end go the second stanza of Part II before moving on to Part III where he will fully engage with images of famine from the 1800s.
Stanzas One and Two
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wolfed the blighted root and died.
The new potato, sound as stone,
Million rotted along with it.
In the first part of Part III, the poet engages with images of famine in Ireland in the 1800s. He thinks about the skulls, the dead bodies, and the mass graves that people had to be buried in. He remembers the “higgledy skeletons” who searched from place to place for nourishment. They ate anything, eventually dying from starvation or from eating “blighted root,” or an unhealthy plant.
Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
beaks of famine snipped at guts.
The potato blight destroyed Ireland’s food resources occurred within days and changed the future of the country. It filled the people with hunger and resulted in hard eyes and cold faces.
The poet also writes that the people were like “a plucked bird” on a butcher’s slab, skinny and near death. He also emphasizes the pain they experienced from hunger in his description of famine snipping “at guts.”
A people hungering from birth,
Hope rotted like a marrow.
From birth, people were hungry for something to eat. They scavenged pointlessly trying to find something to eat and something religious to make sense of all the suffering that they endured. But, as time went by, hope dwindled.
Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
you still smell the running sore.
The speaker feels as though the sorrow of the past (which was preventable or at least could’ve been made far less long-lasting by significant intervention by the government) is still in the ground. If you’re at a potato digging, you can feel it as the poet does now. You can still “smell the running sore.”
Under a gay flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
Are served for lunch. Dead-beat, they flop
In the final section of ‘At a Potato Digging,’ the poet uses two stanzas of four lines. The first four return readers to modern times where the mood is somewhat less depressing. The pickers continue their work and gulls fly overhead and scavenge. Eventually, the workers sit down, exhausted from everything they’ve done during the day. They fall to the ground, as did the men and women suffering during the potato famine. But, the workers are just tired, not dying.
Down in the ditch and take their fill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.
They spill drinks into the ground to celebrate what the Earth gives forth in the form of a healthy harvest of potatoes. There was no “faith” the speaker suggests that could will the earth to give up healthy potatoes during the famine. So, in honor of a healthy harvest, they do not engage in religious praise. They celebrate the “sod” and its produce with tea and pieces of brown bread.
About Seamus Heaney
Seamus Justin Heaney was born in 1939 and died in 2013. He was an Irish poet, playwright, and translator. During his lifetime, he was an important figure in poetry and he is believed to be one of the best Irish poets of all time. Robert Lowell said he was “the most important Irish poet since Yeats”. Seamus Heaney received several awards, including the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (1968), the E. M. Foster award (1975), the PEN Translation Prize (1985), the Golden Wreath of Poetry, and the T. S. Eliot prize, among others. Moreover, he won the Literature Nobel Prize in 1995 because his works “had lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.
From 1981 to 2006, Seamus Heaney lived part-time in the United States. He worked as a professor and was a “Poet in Residence” at Harvard University. One of his most well-known works is ‘Death of a Naturalist‘. Death of a Naturalist was issued in 1966 and was Heaney’s first major published collection. Other notable works include:
- ‘Field Work’
- ‘The Spirit Level’
- ‘District and Circle‘
- ‘Human Chain‘