‘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.
The poem, as already mentioned, has four sections which vary in length and form. Particularly, section 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.
‘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.
At a Potato Digging Analysis
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.
Recurs mindlessly as autumn. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
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/Wricker 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.
Flint-white, purple. They lie scattered
like inflated pebbles. Native
to the black hutch of clay
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.
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.
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in ‘forty-five,
wolfed the blighted root and died.
Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus into filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore.
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 reverence “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.
Under a gay flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.
The final stanza 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.
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 it 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, 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: ‘North’, ‘Field Work’, ‘The Spirit Level’, ‘Beowulf’, ‘District and Circle‘, and ‘Human Chain.