The poem "Digging" is in Heaney's first collection of poems called "Death of a Naturalist" (1966). This poem is the first poem of this collection. It is a free verse poem written in first person narrative, with eight stanzas containing two couplets. The free structure of this poem allows Heaney to freely express his respect of the Irish tradition as well as his pride and dignity towards his ancestors.
The poem starts and ends with the same lines "between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests" but the first stanza ends with "as snug as a gun" and the last stanza ends with "I'll dig with it." Thus, Heaney foregrounds the importance of the writer's profession and craft by breathing new life into the cliched idiom "the pen is mightier than the sword." Heaney affirms that he has decided to choose his own career path, as a writer. It is clear that Heaney feels confident that he is very skilled with a pen and demonstrates and proves that he is an accomplished poet by writing this very thought provoking poem.
The title "Digging" is usually interpreted as an act of hard labor. It awakens our curiosity for we want to know the reasons why he is digging and what he is digging for.
The poem basically describes his father digging potato drills and the grandfather cutting turf:
"By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man."
However the poet does not praise their strength as diggers. But the act of digging is associated more with the passing on of special values from generation to generation. There is also an extended metaphor of digging and roots in the poem, which shows how the poet, in his writing, is getting back to his own identity, and where his family comes from: "Digging....through living roots awaken in my head."
Heaney realizes that in choosing 'the squat pen' over 'the spade' he is in fact 'digging' up memories of his ancestors, and thus enabling the process of the historical past giving meaning to the present. So all in all, he draws the conclusion that whilst we must not forget our roots,we must pursue our own passions and dreams in life. For Heaney, it is his chosen calling as a writer in which he finds solace, which enables him to transfer memories onto paper, giving old thoughts the power to transcend time.
Heaney's simultaneous onomatopoeic and alliterative use of the sibilant sound of /s/ captures very precisely the sound of the spade digging into the soft earth:
the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat