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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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, 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...

(The entire section is 961 words.)