What are examples of figurative language in Digging by Seamus Heaney?

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Ordinary prose speech uses the grammatical structure of sentences as an organizing principle. Figures of speech depart from ordinary language either by using organizing principles (such as sound) in addition to grammatical structure or by using words to mean in unusual ways. 

Although Seamus Heaney's "Digging" is written in free verse and does not have a regular rhyme scheme, it does use occasional rhymes such as "sound-ground".

Another figure of speech used in the poem is assonance, which is repetition of vowel sounds. This can be seen in the pair "thumb - gun". 

Alliteration, or repetition of consonants or consonant groups is used in phrases such as "tall tops" and "gravelly ground". 

The poem as a whole is an extended metaphor, comparing the digging of his ancestors using a spade as a tool to dig into the earth and his own writing, which employs a pen as a tool. 


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Figurative language allows a writer or poet to create visual images of events, occurrences, objects, people and so on in order to enhance a description of something without literally describing it which may be a boring process. In Digging by Seamus Heaney, Heaney talks about potato farming in Ireland, his native home. 

The narrator fondly remembers his father and grandfather before him and their contribution to the land and he wants to make it understood that their work was essentially difficult. The spade makes a "rasping" sound - onomatopoeia (when the sound is associated with the action)- and this ensures that the reader has a good mental picture and can imagine the sound which is then reinforced by alliteration, " the spade sinks into gravelly ground" as the "s" is repeated and the "g" is repeated to give an almost lyrical tone to the action. 

As he continues, the reader can perceive that the narrator's father is dead as the narrator speaks of "twenty years away," which is a euphemism for his father's death. An almost wistful and romantic image of potato farming develops from here and the narrator is immensely proud of his "roots" be they potato roots as they are pulled from the ground or his heritage. This then is a play on words as "roots" has a double meaning. The narrator also extends the metaphor of "digging" through the "roots" association. The fact that he intends to "dig" with his pen suggests that he will make his family proud of his achievements although he will be writing not farming. 

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"Digging," by Seamus Heaney, contains multiple examples of figurative language. Figurative language, or poetic/rhetorical devices, is where an author manipulates language in order to make the text more vivid. Examples of figurative language used in Heaney's poem are as follows.

Repetition-- Repetition is where a word or phrase is repeated for effect. Line one contains repetition: "between my finger and my thumb." 

Alliteration-- Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound within a line of poetry. Line one also contains alliteration: the repeated "m" sound in "my." 

Simile-- A simile is a comparison between two unlike or dissimilar things (using "like" or "as"). Line two contains a simile: "The squat pen rests; snug as a gun." Here, a pen is compared to a gun. 

Personification--Personification is the giving of human characteristics to non-human/non-living things. Personification can be found in line two: "The squat pen rests." Here, the pen (an inanimate object) rests (something humans, not pens, do). 

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