How might one comment on the central theme of Seamus Heaney's poem title "Digging"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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What is the central theme, if any, of Seamus Heaney’s poem titled “Digging”? Is the poem about agricultural labor? Yes. Is it about the apparent contrast between such labor and the work of a writer? Yes. More significantly, however, the poem seems to be about the ways values and ideals are passed down from one generation to the next, with each subsequent generation having the opportunity – if it so chooses – to reject the values of the past. Heaney’s poem, however, seems to endorse the idea of embracing the best values of the past, such as the value of hard work. By the end of the poem, the speaker has extolled both his father and his grandfather as rural laborers, but the speaker – who is not a farmer – has also extolled the value of working hard at whatever tasks one sets for oneself.

At the beginning of the poem, the speaker implies his own occupation as a writer:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

The comparison of a pen to a gun implies the potential power of the pen and the potential influence of a writer. However, no sooner does the speaker seem to claim power for his profession than he looks out the window and down at his father, who is literally digging in the ground. This sight provokes a memory of his father twenty years earlier, digging for potatoes. This memory, in turn, reminds him of his experience, as a young boy, of watching his grandfather dig turf, which the Irish used to use as we would use fire wood. By the end of the poem, it is very clear that the speaker greatly admires the work ethic of his father and grandfather as well as their hard physical labor. The speaker misses his own personal association with such work, and by the poem’s final lines he returns to his own situation, feeling momentarily inadequate, perhaps even a bit emasculated:

I’ve no spade to follow men like them.  (28)

But then he immediately resolves on his own course of conduct:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.  (29-31)

In other words, the speaker will honor and emulate the labor of his father and grandfather by doing a different kind of labor of his own – a task at which he plans to work, in his own way, just as hard as they did. Indeed, by the end of the poem one might even argue that this poem itself is an example of the speaker’s own digging: digging into his own past and into the pasts of his father and grandfather.

The poem is framed by references to writing. The first reference suggests the distinction between writing and digging; the second reference dissolves that distinction: writing will now be its own kind of digging. Just as the shovel earlier rested along his father's knee, so the pen now rests along the speaker's finger. The poem celebrates the potential, ideal connections that can exist from one generation to the next, especially from one generation of a particular family to the next, even if those generations earn their livings in ways that seem significantly different.


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