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.
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.”
Analysis of Digging
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.
Between my finger and my thumbThe squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
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.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound(…)My father, digging. I look down
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.
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds(…)Where he was digging.
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 coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft(…)Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
The fourth stanza is rich in description, as the speaker paints the image of his father digging through the potato beds.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.Just like his old man.
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.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day(…)For the good turf. Digging.
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 cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap(…)But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
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.
Between my finger and my thumb(…)I’ll dig with it.
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.
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.