Seamus Heaney's "Digging"

Updated on March 22, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Seamus Heaney

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Digging"

Seamus Heaney's "Digging" features scattered rime in eight stanzas of varied lines. The speaker compares his own style of work with that of his forefathers. It is a poem of love and respect for the achievements of his father and grandfather.

The speaker's tribute to this father and grandfather. Both father and grandfather labored hard for a living. Heaney's poem dramatizes the differences between the speaker's labor and that of his forebears.

Digging

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 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.

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.

Seamus Heaney reading his poem, "Digging."

Commentary

The speaker's tribute to this father and grandfather who labored hard for a living dramatizes the differences between the speaker's labor and theirs.

First Stanza: As He Writes

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

The speaker is located in an upstairs room, and he is writing: "Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun." The near rime of thumb and gun is aching to imply the old adage, "The pen is mightier than the sword."

Soon, however, the reader learns that this writer is engaged in a battle that is not a literal battle in a literal war but one of a different nature, yet one that every human being, every living creature, must engage simply in order to survive.

Second Stanza: The Rhythm and Rime of Physical Labor

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

Looking down from his window, the speaker sees his father working in the flowerbeds. The rhythm and rime of this short stanza underscore the skill with which the father works at the same time it demonstrates the dexterity of the poet: "Under my window a clean rasping sound / When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: / My father, digging. I look down."

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Third Stanza: The Memory of Digging

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 speaker then notices that while he sits writing, his father is out digging in the soil. As he watches his father, his thoughts are carried back "twenty years" to when his father was digging potatoes instead of digging to plant flowers, as he is now doing.

Fourth Stanza: Admiring His Father's Dexterity

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.

The speaker describes his father's work with the spade back when he was laboring in potato fields: "He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep / To scatter new potatoes that we picked."

The speaker admired his father's dexterity then as he does now. He remembers the pleasant sensation of the "cool hardness" of the potatoes in their hands.

Fifth Stanza: Grandfather's Spade Agility

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

The speaker then remarks about how well his father could "handle a spade." That memory brings on a further memory about his grandfather, who handled the spade with great agility also.

Sixth Stanza: Great Respect for Ability

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.

Remembering that his "grandfather could cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner's bog," the speaker also remembers how quickly the old man could return to his work after a quick sip of milk that the lad had lovingly brought him.

The speaker gained great respect for his grandfather's ability to continue "Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods / Over his shoulder, digging down and down / For the good turf."

Seventh Stanza: Memories Filled with Images

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.

The speaker's memories provide him with images of what he had seen and experienced because of the work of his father and grandfather. The speaker recalls "The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat." And "living roots awaken in [his] head."

However, the speaker then avers, "But I've no spade to follow men like them." Besides not having a literal spade, the speaker feels humbled when thinking of the hard work these men had to accomplish to feed their families. The speaker does not have the same kinds of adversity to face, but he does have his own.

Eighth Stanza: Metaphorical Digging

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

The speaker then repeats his opening lines, "Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests," but adds that his pen will be his spade, and he will "dig with it." His metaphor has grown out of his comparisons between his ancestors' digging the physical earth and his own digging the metaphysical world for gems of wisdom and truth about the human condition.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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