An Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’

Seamus Heaney was an Irish poet, teacher and playwright who lived between 1939 and 2013. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Among his popular poems are ‘Mid-term Break’ which he uses to memorialise his younger brother’s demise and ‘Digging’ which depicts farming as a noble profession just like writing.

Heaney’s ‘Digging’ is a poem that celebrates farming and writing as arts through an ingenious poetic comparison. The persona of the poem is a writer but he compares the art of writing to his father’s profession, farming. Farming runs in the family as the persona’s grandfather was also a farmer. Though the grandson is not a farmer, he sees his profession of writing as being similar to farming which involves digging , a metaphor for hard work, dedication to duty, creativity, productivity, nurturing life, questing for truth, battling life’s many foes, making discoveries and giving life and beauty to the world.

Heaney’s ‘Digging’ is organised in 8 stanzas of varying number of lines. The poem is a free verse and makes use of run-on-lines or enjambment. The poem has a total of 31 lines. The first stanza of the poem is a couplet and reads: ‘Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun’.

This stanza has regularity in the number of syllables per line which is 8. It describes the hand in a writing posture with a pen. ‘The squat pen’ is a fat stubby fountain pen. There is personification in the pen being described as resting, yet the idea of resting itself is ironic in the sense that in that posture the pen is set to start writing. There is also simile in the expression ‘snug as a gun’ which expresses the power of the pen and upholds the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword. This way, the writer is seen as a warrior who fights with the pen because he uses the pen to draw attention to social maladies in order to change them and make society a better place. This way, the writer is a social activist and writing a form of activism. Notice the caesura in the second line of the first stanza in the form of a semi-colon. The caesura creates a pause before we are introduced to the surprising comparison between the pen and the gun. The word ‘snug’ means comfortable, warm and cozy and suggests that the pen is in its proper position.

The second stanza of Heaney’s ‘Digging’ is a tercet and reads: ‘Under my window, a clean rasping sound/When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:/My father, digging. I look down’.

Though there is no regularity in the distribution of syllables in this stanza, the stanza has a rhyme scheme which is aaa seen in the ending words; ‘sound’, ‘ground’ and ‘down’. Though this stanza flows into the next one, it has some ideas complete on its own. The stanza depicts the persona’s father at work. He is a farmer and this is seen in how he digs the ground with a spade. The expression ‘Under my window’ suggests that the persona is upstairs writing while the father works below in a farm or garden. Metaphorically, this explains the generational shift and transformation in the family profession marked by progress that the son has made in becoming an intellectual though the poem insists that both farming and writing demand the same intellectual rigour. However, it is observed, within the context of the poem, that farming demands more physical energy than writing. There is synaesthesia (the description of one sense in terms of another through the use of unrelated adjectives) in the use of the word ‘clean’ to describe ‘sound’ in the first line of the second stanza of the poem. The word ‘rasping’ is auditory imagery and suggests a high-sounding and grating sound which describes the sound of digging as the spade penetrates the ground. There is alliteration in the second line of the stanza in the words spade/sinks and gravelly/ground where the sounds /s/ and /g/ are repeated, respectively. The expression ‘gravelly ground’ is a pathetic fallacy as it assigns emotion or humanity to the ‘ground’. Another form of imagery depicted in this stanza is kinetic imagery seen in words like ‘sinks’, ‘digging’ and ‘look down’. In all, this stanza describes the young writer looking down and seeing his farmer father tilling the soil below.

The third stanza of the poem has four lines (a quatrain) and reads: ‘Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds/Bends low, comes up twenty years away/Stooping in rhythm through potato drills/where he was digging’.

This stanza is a free verse and is rich in visual imagery depicted in words like ‘rump’, ‘flowerbeds’ and ‘potato drills’. The stanza captures the strenuous nature of farming as well as the quality of hard work and dedication observed in the persona’s father. The stanza is equally rich in kinetic imagery exemplified in words such as ‘straining’, ‘bends’, ‘stooping’ and ‘digging’. These movement words capture the farmer’s work postures which in turn speak to his dedication to work which has produced the flowers and the potatoes in the farm. According to the persona, he has observed his father work for twenty years in the same posture.

The fourth stanza of the poem has five lines (a quintet) and reads: ‘The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft/Against the inside knee was levered firmly./He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep/To scatter new potatoes that we had picked/Loving their cool hardness in our hands.’

In this stanza, the persona continues to describe the father’s work culture and its productivity which he has witnessed over a long period of time. The expression ‘coarse boot’ constitutes visual imagery and describes the farmer’s foot wear as crude or rough. The word ‘lug’ could mean a crate for carrying fruits but in the context deployed in the poem, it refers to the part of a spade that goes into the ground during digging. Thus, what the first line suggests is that the farmer places his boot on the lug of the spade to help drive it into the ground. The expression ‘shaft’ also describes a part of a spade, the handle to be precise.

 The second line of the stanza describes how the persona’s farmer-father uses the spade in a skillful and effective manner during work. From the third line to the end of the stanza describe the art of planting or cultivating and or harvesting potatoes, including clearing the farm or garden. The persona equally describes his participation in this farming exercise as a child growing up. This implies that he was raised in the art of farming, though he has chosen another career path for himself, which is writing. The expression ‘tall tops’ is an alliteration and speaks to how the persona clears the garden in preparation for cultivation. The words ‘buried/bright’ constitute another instance of alliteration and suggests planting of crops. The expression ‘to scatter new potatoes that we picked’ denotes at once the idea of cultivation and harvesting. The expression ‘cool hardness’ is an instance of tactile imagery and speaks of how the potatoes feel in the hands of the children.

The fifth stanza of the poem is a couplet just like the first stanza and reads: ‘By God, the old man could handle a spade./Just like his old man.’ This stanza is an expression of the persona’s admiration of his father’s farming skills denoted by his deftness in the use of the spade. Another important issue raised in this stanza is that farming runs in the family as the persona’s grandfather was also a farmer. The expression ‘By God’ is an exclamation without the mark or a swear word that hints at the sincerity of the persona in remarking on the father’s skillful deployment of the spade.

The sixth stanza of the poem has 8 lines (an octave) and reads: ‘My grandfather cut more turf in a day/Than any other man on Toner’s bog./Once I carried him milk in a bottle/Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up/To drink it, then fell to right away/Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods/Over his shoulder, going down and down/For the good turf. Digging.’

In this stanza the persona narrates his impression about his grandfather’s farming skills based on personal experience. The word ‘turf’ defines grass and the surface layer of the earth held together by its roots. The impression the persona has about his grandfather is that he was the best turf cutter in his area, Toner’s bog, which is a peat bog in Bellaghy located in County Derry. This location is Heaney’s resting place and is close to his birthplace which is Tamniaran in Northern Ireland. The persona recalls taking water to the hard-working old man and how he drinks quickly and immediately returns to his task of cutting the turf. This is indicative of the fact that the grandfather is passionate about his work. The expression ‘Nicking and slicing neatly’ is suggestive of the dexterity, skillfulness and attention to detail observed in the grandfather and which are all seen to be necessary not only in farming but also in the writing profession. The word ‘sods’ refers to turf or the soil surface and grass taken together. This stanza contains some movement words which describe the rhythm of farm work. A good example is in the expression ‘heaving sods/ Over his shoulder, going down and down’. The word ‘digging’ is a constant repetition in the poem. There are instances of caesura in the stanza found in lines 4, 6, 7 and 8, just like it is found in the other stanzas of the poem.

The penultimate stanza of the poem is a quatrain and reads: ‘The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge/Through living roots awaken in my head./But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’.

This stanza, just like the ones before it, gives this poem its descriptive texture. The poet is keen on describing the imagery of farming for our sensory impressions. The expression ‘cold smell’ is an instance of synaesthesia where cold constitutes tactile imagery. The expression ‘potato mould’ is a visual imagery while the words ‘squelch’ and ‘slap’ constitute instances of onomatopoeia in the poem. The word ‘soggy’ is wet or soft while ‘peat’ defines soil mixed with vegetable matter. The expression ‘curt cut’ is an alliteration where ‘curt’ means short, describing the close clearing that the farmer does. The third line of the stanza indicates that all that the persona has described has been through the agency of memory. The expression ‘living roots’ constitutes personification in the poem. The final line of the stanza is to inform us that the persona has chosen a different career path: ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. He does not use spade to work; he uses pen, as the final stanza of the poem indicates.

The last stanza of the poem is a tercet and reads: ‘Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it’.

This stanza is more or less a repetition of the first stanza and returns to the idea that the persona of the poem has chosen writing as a career instead of farming which is the profession of his father and grandfather. However, the persona sustains the idea that both farming and writing are related by saying that he will dig with his pen. Hence, the overall message that Heaney’s ‘Digging’ sends across is that the farmer and the writer perform the same roles.  

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