"Digging" appears in Seamus Heaney's first major volume of poetry, called Death of a Naturalist (1966). The poems in this book deal mainly with Heaney's rural upbringing, his family, and how his identity formed in that environment. The book was received well by critics, who mostly praised his evocative, almost onomatopoeic language and his insight into his childhood from the perspective of an adult.
Despite his talent with language, Heaney was sometimes criticized in his career for being too Anglicized to be held up as the exemplary Irish poet. However, Ireland's internal strife and the fractures in language, culture, and identity between people living there certainly influenced Heaney's poetry. One of his instincts is to approach Ireland vertically—digging through the successive layers of mythology and history, like excavating a bog. Later in his career, Heaney would publish a collection called North; this collection includes poems that Heaney wrote after reading PV Glob's book The Bog People, an archaeological study of old corpses found in Northern European bogs.
"Digging" is told from the perspective of a writer reflecting on the line of farmers from which he came. Though the speaker does not name himself as Heaney, the two clearly have much in common; this speaker seems to act as a projection of Heaney, or a version of himself that he wants to be. The speaker thinks wistfully of working with the earth, as his grandfather used to and his father still does, and he declares that, as a writer, he wants to do the same work that they did; he wants to dig with his pen. The meaning of this declaration is ambiguous—it could mean that the speaker wants to use his writing to become closer to his family, or that he wants to do his work with the same hardworking mindset that they did theirs. Regardless, this poem uses evocative imagery and language to explore the place that digging takes in the speaker's consciousness and hints at the ways this history shapes him.