Digging (Seamus Heaney poem)

Digging (Seamus Heaney poem) Literary Elements

Speaker or Narrator, and Point of View

An unnamed person tells the poem from a first-person perspective; whether or not Heaney means for the speaker to be himself is not clear.

Form and Meter

This poem follows no specific form or meter.

Metaphors and Similes

"The squat pen rests; snug as a gun" (simile)

Alliteration and Assonance

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Throughout this poem Heaney uses alliteration to express the physical nature of digging; this is a little ironic, since the speaker himself does not dig and notes that he is a writer, not a farmer. He uses repeated "s" sounds in phrases like "squelch and slap/Of soggy peat" to imitate the squelching and slapping that he describes. The phrase "curt cuts of an edge" also mimics the very thing it describes with its sound. Repeated "g" sounds replicate the grinding sounds of digging.


The irony in this poem is that the speaker gives a detailed description of the process of digging while acknowledging that, unlike his father and his grandfather, he is not himself a digger.




The poet describes himself and describes a landscape where his father and grandfather both work, linking landscapes in the present, twenty years before, and even before that (when his grandfather worked)


The tone of this poem is wistful yet firmly rooted in the present as well as the past.

Protagonist and Antagonist

This poem does not have a clear antagonist; however, the speaker, his father, and his grandfather are all central to the poem.

Major Conflict

The major in conflict in "Digging" seems to arise from the contrast between the poet's work in the present and his ancestor's work in the past.


This poem has no clear climax, but its tension comes to a head when the speaker describes his grandfather, who could "cut more turf in a day/Than any other man on Toner’s bog," drinking the milk his grandchild, the speaker, has brought him and then falling back to digging. These images "awaken" in the head of the speaker, who clearly feels a very physical connection to the action of digging. He uses this memory to shed light on how his position as a writer allows him to connect viscerally to his memories of his father and grandfather, yet that same position also sets him apart from those men.


The poem does not directly use foreshadowing, but the speaker says, "By God, the old man could handle a spade./Just like his old man." This suggests that the speaker will follow in the footsteps of those who come before him, if not in his choice of tool, in his mastery of his chosen tool.



Metonymy and Synecdoche


The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.



Though this poem does not include any direct examples of onomotopaeia, much of the language works with sounds meant to evoke the physical tasks being described.