Discuss how Heaney develops the theme of "Digging" by using poetical elements.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

First we need to determine what the theme of "Digging" is, and there seems to be several opinions on this. One opinion is that the theme is violence in Ireland, with a sub-theme of death. For violence, the metaphorical simile comparing "pen" to "gun" is seen to be carried out in the description of the "spade," "the shaft / Against the inside knee was levered firmly," thereby establishing the primary theme of violence in Ireland. For death, the grandfather is "digging down" and the father "Bends low, coming up twenty years away," thereby establishing a thematic link to death. A second opinion identifies the theme as the honor of all kinds of work, equating the nobility of writing with the nobility of farming and growing things.

A third opinion is that the theme combines joy of self-realization with triumph over external influences. On the one hand, the poetic speaker (who is synonymous with Heaney himself) fondly remembers and admires grandfather and father while, on the other hand, he is also mindful of the greater circumstances of Ireland's conflict embroiled society. The poetic elements he uses might be directed at any of these suggested themes. Poetic elements include structure, narrative, poetic speaker, theme, metaphor, symbols etc and differ from poetic techniques, which are the optional choices a poet might make, such as personification, onomatopoeia, and repetition etc.

The foundationally important element is the humorously ironic poetic speaker's voice. It is this ironic voice that indicates how the speaker feels about taking up a pen instead of a gun; taking up a pen instead of a spade. The ironic voice also suggests what sort of "digging" he will do with his pen, which seems to be the sort that exposes society while at the same time revealing his own inner truth. In an interview referenced by The New York Times, Heaney spoke of what he called Yeats' "amphibious inner and outer life" and stated that writing poetry requires this sort of "Being in two places at once." "Digging" fulfills being "in two places at once" by revealing Irish society in reference to guns and spades, while revealing something of Heaney's inner reality:

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.

The structure also confirms and develops the theme by giving the largest stanzas to reminiscence of father and grandfather while the opening and closing stanzas direct attention to the speaker's pen and are ironically and wittily small.