Digging Questions and Answers
by Seamus Heaney

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What is the main theme of the poem "Digging?" A theme is suggestd by a combination of the tone and the way the metaphor of digging shows unexpected common ground between the livelihood of potato farming and writing. What is such a theme?

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Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In this poem, the tone, which refers to the way the author feels about the poem's subject, is very matter-of-fact. It is not emotional or dramatic; there are no examples of hyperbole or irony. If anything, the speaker feels nostalgic, and the author seems to respect this reverence for the past.

The main metaphor of the poem is the comparisons of the speaker's pen to a spade. In the final few lines, the speaker says,

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 speaker recognizes the difference between the work that his forebears have done, working the land and making it produce potatoes, and the work that he does. However, the first simile compared his pen to a "gun" (line 2). Such a comparison feels quite different in connotation to the final comparison of the pen to a spade, an instrument a farmer would use. The spade is positive and productive; the gun is dangerous and destructive. The spade links the speaker to his family's past; the gun does not. He seems to develop a greater appreciation for the work he is called to do. Therefore, one theme of the text is that all work has value when the worker is committed to it.

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The main themes of the poem "Digging" are the nobility of all work, and continuity with the past. The central metaphor in the poem is the comparison between the speaker's chosen work of writing and his ancestor's livelihood as potato farmers. The tone of the poem is one of reverence, reverence on the part of the speaker for the kind of work done by his father, and his father before him. The speaker says,

"By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man."

The speaker describes the labor involved in raising potatoes, and lauds his father's and grandfather's skill in doing it. He recalls a time when he, as a young boy, was sent to bring his grandfather a bottle of milk while he worked, and remembers how the older man took only a minute to drink it before returning to the monumental task at hand. The speaker laments briefly that he has "no spade to follow men like them," but understands that he can share in their legacy of hard work by doing well the task alotted him - writing. In lieu of a spade, he will take his pen, and "dig with it."

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