Digging – by Seamus Heaney

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|Opening the Poem  |History of the Poem

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests: snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

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 picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could 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, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

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.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

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Opening the Poem

  • In the poem Heaney is doing the same thing as his father and grandfather but in a different way.
  • It is the sound of his father digging which causes him to look down and for his memory of “digging” to begin.
  • He conveys the noise of the spade as it digs into the ground:”clear rasping sound”; “nicking and slicing “; “the squelch and slag of soggy peat.”
  • There is a central extended metaphor of digging and roots, which shows how the poet, in his writing, is getting back to his own roots (his identity, and where his family comes from).
  • The title signifies he is digging into his past. This is particularly evident in the line “and comes up twenty years away”, as it shows how he has made the transition from the modern day into the past.
  • Seeing his father (now old) “straining” to dig “flowerbeds”, the poet recalls him in his prime, digging “potato drills”. And even earlier, he remembers his grandfather, digging peat.
  • He cannot match “men like them” with a spade, but he sees that the pen is (for him) mightier, and with it he will dig into his past and celebrate them.
  • The poem begins almost as it ends, but only at the end is the writer’s pen seen as a weapon for digging.
  • The poem describes in detail, in the fourth stanza, how to use a spade.
  • The poem describes noises very well: “rasping sound”; ” squelch and slap”; “curt and cuts”.
  • The poem deals with his memories and his feelings. Heaney uses the spade as a metaphor; he says he’ll dig with it.
  • Heaney remembers his own role in the digging: he and other children would gather the new potatoes that his father dug up and he was also responsible for bringing milk to his grandfather on Toner’s bog. It was this involvement that enabled him to watch his father and grandfather at work and describe their movements so well.
  • Heaney says he will follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather but he will use a pen instead of a spade.
  • Heaney doesn’t want to dig with a spade. He would rather dig with a pen.
  • The poet shows his fondness for his father: old man is a common term of affection. Heaney is clearly proud of him as well as of his grandfather.
  • His father’s father could handle a spade better than any other man.
  • The poem shows how a family tradition is carried on.
  • There is a sense of Heaney’s love of the earth throughout the poem. His father and grandfather seem to be in harmony with the earth; he himself, as a child, loved picking up the potatoes that the earth produced.
  • He is praising his grandfather by saying he could cut more turf in a day than anyone else in the bog.
  • It is obvious Heaney loved working with his father and grandfather. But he will not be a farmer when he grows up.

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History of the Poem

Digging was first published in the New Statesman on the 4th December 1964. 

In May 1966, when Heaney was only 27, his first book coverfull-length collection, Death of a Naturalist, was published by Faber and Faber. Digging was the first poem in this book, one of thirty four short poems in this award winning volume. It earned him the Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Prize. The celebrated Irish poet Austin Clarke, reviewing it on Radio Eireann said that unlike most first books, this one is mature and certain in its touch.”

book coverOn the 31st December, 1999 The Irish Times published a list of the 100 Favourite Irish Poems of all time. More than 3,500 readers of the paper had written or e-mailed their choices. Digging was the second poem by Heaney to be chosen and came in at twenty fifth place on the list. Heaney had ten of his poems included on this list.

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