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 entire section is 549 words.)

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 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...

(The entire section is 412 words.)