What is the tone of the poem "Digging," by Seamus Heaney?

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Digging" by Seamus Heaney, is an autobiographical poem—written, that is, by Heaney. He is recalling the memory of his father, digging into the ground to harvest potatoes. The tone (or the author's feeling about his subject) is one of awe, respect and pride.

The poem begins with lines that identify the speaker—Heaney. And in his hand is a pen that fits snuggly like a gun. This image gives the impression of power, perhaps alluding to the statement that "the pen is mightier than the sword." However, as Heaney progresses, we will see that this kind of power means very little to the author as he recalls the work of his father before him.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Heaney's father is gone now, twenty years, but in the author's memory, he can see his dad, hear the sound of his shovel, and feel and smell the dirt. His father would work with the shovel...

To scatter new potatoes that we picked

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

"Loving" indicates the author's actions as a child, but also his pleasure in the memory of harvesting the potatoes. Heaney's pride in his father's skill is evident as he praises his dad and his grandfather.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,

Just like his old man.

His respect for this skill with the shovel is evident as the author continues to write, remembering his grandfather's prowess in the potato fields.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner's bog.

Throughout these lines, the author not only remembers, but he pays homage in this verse, extolling the skill and grace wielded by the men in his family, in his native Ireland, when they worked until their backs were bent, but with a beauty of precision and form.

Heaney expresses regret that he cannot be like these men whom he follows. He cannot pick up a spade to try to achieve what they were able, with their own pride and mastery, to accomplish. The best that he can do is use his pen to "dig," trying to capture some of the skill and grace that they used to make harvesting potatoes like its own form of art. The image of the "gun" is gone, replaced with the honorable labor of digging, harvesting, and working in the fields.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it.

Though Heaney may regret that he cannot follow as closely to his father and grandfather as he might like, the overall tone of the poem expresses admiration for their capabilities.