Seamus Heaney, in his poem "Digging," uses an extended metaphor of digging as he meditates on his father digging in his garden. The sight of his father digging reminds Seamus of his father digging potatoes twenty years earlier and of his grandfather, who could cut more peat than any farmer in the area. The speaker comments that he has no spade to dig as his father and gradfather did, but he will dig up meaning with his pen as a poet and writer.
The title of the poem, Digging, begins the extended metaphor between the father's work and the poet's work.
In line 6, the setting is the garden, but with this sight by Seamus, he is transported 20 years earlier and sees his father digging potatoes on his family farm.
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Although Seamus doesn't share the father's ability for digging potatoes peat, he admires them and feels united with them through blood, memory, and the soil in lines 15-24.
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.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
In lines 30-31, the speaker digs with his pen by digging into, or exploring the memory and the memory of his father and grandfather and their culture. He can dig into the hearts and minds of people, creating poems that explore human nature.
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
The first flashback occurs when Heaney is reminded of his grandfather:
"My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's Bog."
The second flashback occurs when he tries to compare and contrast his present situation with that of his father's and grandfather's: "through living roots awaken in my head."
Both these flashbacks emphasize the importance and value of tradition but every individual must not become bogged down in mere tradition but must use tradition as a springboard to find his own true identity. AlthoughHeaney respects his father, and grandfather and the generations before them and their way of living he appreciates the fact that he has his own skills and expertise and is happy to follow them. He chooses to go with his heart even as he admires and values his family tradition of hard work and love of the land.This is what Seamus Heaney does when he emphatically asserts in the last line that he will 'dig' with his 'squat pen' and not with 'a spade' like his father and grandfather before him.