“Digging” is a relatively short poem (thirty-one lines) in free verse. While it has no set pattern of doing so, it breaks up into stanzas of two to five lines. The presence in the poem of the first person “I” who wields a pen, and the family reminiscences, identify the speaker as Seamus Heaney himself and the poem as autobiographical. The poem is filled with the terminology of Heaney’s native Ireland.
Heaney begins the poem with an image of himself, pen in hand. He hears or is remembering the sound of digging under his window. It is his “father, digging”; however, the reader is told in line 7 that it is an echo from the past. Knowing that, “to ‘look down’ ” can be understood to refer both to the memory of his father’s presence below the window and to looking back through time to it. The image of his father as he “Bends low” can also mean two things: the bending that accompanies digging and the stooping of age.
Because his father is dead, “twenty years away,” the sound can also echo the digging of graves, an image that is further reinforced by the evocations of the smell and feel of the soil. The father who is dead was a laborer, a potato farmer, as his father before him was a digger of “turf,” or peat.
The middle stanzas paint a picture of the activity of digging, as it was part of Heaney’s childhood: The father stoops “in rhythm,” and the spade is held “firmly.” The separate parts of the father’s body and the spade are described as if they are entwined: The father’s boot is on the “lug” (the flat top of the metal scoop of the shovel), the “shaft” (wooden handle) is aligned with his knee. The potatoes themselves are loved for their “cool hardness,” and digging them is regarded as an art that is boasted of generations later.
The memory of his father’s work leads Heaney to the vivid recollection of bringing a bottle of milk, “Corked sloppily with paper,” to his grandfather on “Toner’s bog.” There, he dug up the dense, wet soil, which was made up of decayed moss and other vegetable matter and blocks of which were cut out, dried, and burned for fuel. Heaney recalls the brief pause his grandfather took to drink the whole bottle and the style with which he “fell to” work again. The double meaning of the father’s “Stooping” echoes in the “going down and down” of the grandfather: It can mean both the labor he was engaged in and the lowering of his body into the grave.
In the second to the last stanza, Heaney’s recollection becomes purely sensory: memories of his father in “The cold smell of potato mould” and his grandfather in “the squelch and slap/ Of soggy peat.” What these memories have “awaken[ed]” are the “living roots” in Heaney’s head. The labor of his forefathers is his legacy, for better and for worse, but he lacks something they had: He has “no spade to follow men like them.” In the final stanza, he states again that what he does have is his pen; he will do with his instrument what they did with theirs.
Heaney’s precise description of the way he holds his instrument is the first of many. It is echoed in the description of the way his father holds his. Such a technique has two effects. First, the reader’s sensory experience of the poem is very strong: He or she sees, feels, smells,...
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and hears all that Heaney is remembering. Second, such precision requires great control, and the implied power behind such control carries with it a further implication of the violence that might be unleashed were it not controlled.
Heaney manages to reinforce this undercurrent of implied violence with the way he uses and does not use rhyme and meter. The first two lines of the poem are a rhymed iambic tetrameter couplet. The first line has four strong or stressed syllables, alternating with unstressed syllables. Each unstressed/stressed pair is a foot, called an iamb, and a four-foot line is a tetrameter; a two-line stanza is a couplet. The meter in Heaney’s poem is so neat as to be almost singsong in rhythm. The second line is not as exact, but it still holds to the metrical pattern established by the first; most important, in both lines, the final syllable is strong and rhymes.
The second stanza shifts to a loose iambic pentameter (five unstressed/stressed beats) and also continues to rhyme loosely. After this, however, the poem takes a completely unrhymed, unmetrical form until the final three lines. The first of those final lines repeats the first, which is also the most perfectly metrical, line of the poem. In its first appearance, the strength of the pattern within this line raised an expectation of a continuation of the pattern, an expectation that was met.
When that first line appears again, the same expectation is raised. The first half of the second line also appears again, increasing that sense of expectation. The final four words, however, do not appear. Instead, the anticipated second line is cut into two blunt lines (“squat” as the pen), and there is no rhyme at all.
The poetic forms the first five lines take are those established by English poets. When Heaney begins to recount his uniquely Irish memories, he shifts out of English poetic style. By returning to the metrical line in the last stanza but then severing it and rejecting the rhyme, Heaney communicates with this product of his pen exactly what it is he intends to do by wielding that pen.