Describe the tone of the poem "Digging" by Seamus Heaney.

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literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Tone illustrates an author's attitude toward a subject, audience, or self. In the case of Seamus Heaney's "Digging," the tone of the poem is one of regret and acceptance. 

In the beginning, the speaker seems to regret that he is not out with his father digging. Instead, the speaker is inside bearing his own tool--the pen. As the speaker reflects upon his family and their history with farming, the speaker comes to terms with not maintaining the farming custom of his father and grandfather. Instead, he seems completely comfortable and confident wielding his pen in the end.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
The speaker, accepting his fate as a writer, learns to be okay with his own position in life. He does not wish to carry a spade like his father and grandfather. For him, the pen represents what he will pass on. 
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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Tone, of course, is an author's attitude towards his or her subject.  Because this poem is autobiographical, in the author's own words, we can assume the rarity that the author is the speaker.  The speaker is Heaney and the subject is his father's occupation as potato farmer in comparison with Heaney's occupation as poet.  Therefore, in my opinion, the tone of "Digging" by Seamus Heaney is one of respect for his father and perseverance in Heaney's own, new occupation.

Even though some like to compare the potato farming of the father to war, I would like to keep the poem as simple as it truly is and suggest that it is about the very noble occupation of farming.  We can see the respect Heaney has for his father in the following lines:

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.

As you can see, here Heaney connects the generations together by explaining how his father, a successful potato farmer, learned from his OWN father.  To turn the earth and plant potatoes equals to "cut more turf."  Here Heaney brags that his family can do more in farming than any other family in the area. 

Heaney, however, doesn't have the same perseverance to continue the occupation, though.  Times have been hard for struggling Irish farmers.  Heaney has taken on a new occupation and has immortalized both his proud father and grandfather by WRITING about them.  Heaney begins and ends his poem with this same sentiment:

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

[...]

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

Therefore, whether this poem be about farming or about war, Heaney chooses a new occupation and THIS is how he perseveres.  Instead of digging with a spade the potatoes that his father and grandfather cultivated, Heaney "digs" with a pen and makes a difference in a different way.  In this way, he preserves the tone:  respect for the relatives, aspirations for the new work in immortalizing them.

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