Digging by Seamus Heaney

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.”


Digging Analysis

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.


Stanza 1

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.


Stanza 2

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.


Stanza 3

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.


Stanza 4

The fourth stanza is rich in description, as the speaker paints the image of his father digging through the potato beds.


Stanza 5

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.


Stanza 6

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.


Stanza 7

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.


Stanza 8

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.

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  • Avatar Donbi says:

    Thank you so much.. from South Korea!
    I’ve never read a poetry analysis like yours.
    It is really easy to read.. easy to understand..
    I can even smell the potatoes.. haha .. thank you…

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      wow thank you. I’s lovely to know we are having an impact as far afield as South Korea!

  • Avatar Catherine says:

    This was such a good analysis without over or understating anything.Thank you so much for helping our students like myself.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for your lovely feedback. We are glad to have helped.

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