Digging (Seamus Heaney poem)

Digging (Seamus Heaney poem) Quotes and Analysis

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

The speaker

This couplet, which starts the poem, seems to indicate a certain poetic formality that the rest of the poem may follow, for the two lines rhyme in a simple, familiar fashion. The first line is iambic, and the second line starts with iambs as well. The phrase "snug as a gun" breaks that rhythm by using a trochee, or reversing the syllabic emphasis that had been steady until this point; even the break out of pentameter is not something uncommon in a metered poem, so this first stanza seems to indicate that the rest of the poem will follow a similar form, meter, and rhyme scheme, perhaps also in couplets. However, the rest of the poem contrasts with these lines by not following suit. This choice to start one way and then shift into another may parallel the way the speaker has broken away from his family's line of work. It could also suggest that the speaker is more concerned with the subject matter of his writing than the form.

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

The speaker

This is the moment where the speaker slips into the past; he finds himself twenty years earlier, watching his father dig potatoes. He works now among flowerbeds, but he farmed potatoes when the speaker was young.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

The speaker

In this moment the speaker marvels at his grandfather's strength and calls him the most efficient man on the bog where he worked. This may be an exaggeration, but it demonstrates the speaker's conviction about his family's hardworking nature. Furthermore, by referring to the bog by name and without further explanation, the speaker pulls us in to the world of his family history, giving us intimate access to the memory of the speaker's grandfather.

He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

The speaker

In this stanza the speaker looks at his grandfather through the eyes of an awestruck child. He remembers his grandfather mostly for strength and endurance; he also remembers the way his grandfather drinks the milk the speaker brought him. Milk often symbolizes sustenance, and this moment is no exception; this moment shows the cyclical connection between sustenance and work, because sustenance allows one to produce more sustenance, to provide for one's family.

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.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

The speaker

These lines are perhaps the best example in this poem of Heaney's talent with evocative language. Here he also alludes to his intention to bind himself to his heritage. By referring to "the curt cuts of an edge/through living roots," a sound that "awakens in [the speaker's] head," the speaker refers to the sound of a spade cutting plants out of the dirt. However, the phrase "living roots" also works metaphorically as a nod to the roots that the speaker tries to access in his family and the way he relates his own work as a writer to the work of his ancestors.