In Seamus Heaney's poetry, it seems that the past fascinates him because he cannot deny the profound effect things of the past have had—and still have—on him.
In "Digging," the narrator recalls his father, working in the fields with potatoes. But his connection (here to the earth) does not end with this memory; he then recalls his grandfather who had an indomitable skill at cutting peat: hard work that warmed one's cottage. For the older man, it was an art.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog…
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The narrator desires to be connected to the past: he has no spade, so...
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
In "Follower," the speaker is again drawn to the past. Again as a child, he watched his father's skill at plowing the fields so precisely. He wanted to one-day do what his father did...
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.
This passage does not seem to only speak of farming, but of the speaker's inability to be what his father was, perhaps as a man. The past holds magic, a connection with what is gone forever—and missed.
In "Casualty," the speaker visits the past, recalling a man he so admired, who was killed after going out past curfew—only three days after Bloody Sunday in Ireland. The speaker tries to puzzle out whether the man was responsible for his own death. A return to the past offers the speaker a chance to try to puzzle things out from a new perspective—a distance and separation from time gone by. He looks for answers.
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe's complicity?
'Now, you're supposed to be
An educated man,'
I hear him say. 'Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.'
Perhaps in all of Heaney's poems, the past is something he looks to for a clearer understanding not just of those he has known, but what he can learn as the person he is in the present-day.
As is the case with "Casualty" (when Heaney revisits Bloody Sunday, a tragic loss of civilians in 1972 in the county Derry in Ireland), "At a Potato Digging" recalls a different kind of tragedy—he's not just watching men scrabble after a machine that is digging up potatoes. It is inferred that their haste is born of memories of a terrible potato famine:
Of fear and homage to the famine god...
The imagery is strong as the speaker recalls the blight that took not just potatoes, but food from countless tables, innumerable starving mouths, as "new" potatoes rotted and stank. The memory of those years lives on in the speaker's heart:
Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.
There was nothing to eat. Hunger came to all: we know not just to men, but mothers, children, babies—all suffering the painful pangs of hunger that knew no end. The speaker looks to the past here to understand, and perhaps more so, to appreciate the end of those days, and food enough today...as modern-day workers eat lunch:
Down in the ditch and take their fill,
Thankfully breaking timeless fasts...
For Heaney, all these memories are still alive—instructional and not just soul wrenching, but soul-filling. To understand today, he looks to yesterday.
Heaney uses the past as an anchor for the present in his poetry. His poems lean on their historical context, for the history of the speaker's subject greatly influences his thoughts and feelings in the poem. Heaney's poetry often makes use of a poetic 'flashback,' where one stanza or section might address an event that happened in the past in order to reveal provide a deeper contrast or comparison to the present.
In the poem "At a Potato Digging," the speaker begins describing a present day potato harvest, but switches to the past in the following stanza to give the reader a gritty look at the impact of the potato famine. Heaney's other poems, like "Digging" are rich with detail from the past, capturing images of the speaker's father and grandfather, to address themes like hardship and strength. In this way, the historical context deepens the overall meaning of the poem, giving the reader a greater appreciation of the scope and resonance of Heaney's subject matter.