"Digging" opens Seamus Heaney's first collection and declares his intention as a poet. The poem begins with the speaker, who looks upon himself, his pen posed upon his paper, as he listens to the noise of his father digging outside the window. The speaker looks down, both away from and at his father, and describes a slip in time; his father remains where he is, but the poem slips twenty years into the past, indicating the length of his father's career as a farmer. The speaker emphasizes the continuity of his father's movement, and the moment shifts out of the present tense and into the past.
The speaker then changes his focus to his father's tools, saying, "The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft/Against the inside knee was levered firmly." These lines, describing how his father's shovel fits against his boot and leg, echo the first lines of the poem, which describe the speaker's fingers around his pen. The speaker then describes the picking of the potatoes using the pronoun "we," indicating that other characters populate this memory; possibly this refers to Heaney's siblings or his family in general. The tone is reverential toward the potatoes and the work.
The poem then breaks back into couplet form: "By God, the old man could handle a spade./Just like his old man." This part of the poem feels less formal than the lines that come before it, more like something a person might say out loud to another. The speaker commits personally his story with an oath ("By God"), emphasizing his personal connection to rural Ireland.
In the next lines of the poem, the speaker describes his grandfather as a strong digger who dug for fuel. He recalls approaching his grandfather with a bottle of milk as a child; his grandfather downed the milk and returned to work with more vigor than ever. This moment clearly still stands out to the speaker as an example of his grandfather's hard work and skill. The language here is precise and mimics the sound of digging in its bobbing rhythm and with phrases like "nicking and slicing" and "going down and down."
The next stanza continues the evocative language and uses alliteration freely. "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," the speaker says, explaining the impact his rural upbringing had on him. He ends the stanza by saying he has no spade to follow men like his father and grandfather.
The final stanza, however, returns to the pen mentioned in the first, replacing the spade with the pen in the speaker's hands. "I'll dig with it," is the final line of the poem; this vow feels directed at the speaker's family, like a promise to follow in its stead, though in his own way.
The first couplet of "Digging" begins by using iambic pentameter and a rhyme. The iambic pentameter, however, is interrupted by the trochee in "snug as," and the following stanza does not follow the couplet form as the first one does. However, the three lines of this stanza all rhyme; Heaney rhymes "sound," "ground," and "down." The simple, monosyllabic rhymes used in this and the preceding stanzas appear to create the blueprint for the rest of the poem to follow, but Heaney chooses to move away from those rhymes mid-poem, as if their purpose has been served. Since the poem deals with the complex feelings that arise when one breaks from tradition, this choice bears some significance.
The speaker ends the second stanza and begins the third with the line, "I look down/Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds/Bends low, comes up twenty years away." This stanza communicates the continuity of the speaker's father's digging, but while in the present he digs in flowerbeds, in the past he was digging amongst potato drills. The goal of digging has changed, but the action itself has not. To make clear the journey we have made through time, the speaker switches mid-sentence into the past tense.
The following stanza is clearly rooted in the past. The first sentence describes the speaker's father's body interacting with the spade, but the speaker's voice distances the body from the father, treating it as an extension of the shovel. "The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft/Against the inside knee was levered firmly," the speaker says. By calling his father's boot and knee "the coarse boot" and "the inside knee," instead of connecting them directly to his father, the speaker suggests how intrinsic the act of digging is to his father's nature. Since we the readers know that the speaker is comparing his father's work as a farmer to his own work as a writer, we can conclude with some certainty that the speaker is thinking of how intrinsic his own trade is to himself.
Other characters, though unnamed, also appear in this third stanza. "He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep/To scatter new potatoes that we picked,/Loving their cool hardness in our hands." Though the speaker never says who the other people referred to by the first-person plural are, the wistful tone of this sentence suggests that the "we" refers to the speaker and his siblings. The wonder the speaker describes that stems from touching the potatoes comes off as nostalgic and childlike; clearly, the speaker feels a deep personal connection to farming, a connection that stems from his own experiences, not just those of his father and grandfather.
The following stanza returns to the couplet format, though not to the rhymes, of the first stanza. The speaker begins by uttering, "By God," a moment notably more colloquial than the first several stanzas. This expression seems to burst from the speaker naturally, suggesting that he truly feels impressed by his father's and grandfather's skill.
By bringing his grandfather into the poem, the speaker makes clear that he is talking about something beyond just the dichotomy between his own career and his father's. He appears to celebrate the way of life that his father and grandfather, to an extent, shared, and the nostalgia represented in this poem suggests that the speaker's feelings toward his career as a writer are not cut-and-dry.
The next stanza is longer than any of those that come before it, and it works to describe the speaker's grandfather. The speaker asserts that his grandfather cut "more turf in a day/Than any other man on Toner’s bog." Though the speaker is very firm in his characterization of his grandfather, this assertion has a slightly childlike tone, suggesting that the speaker still sees his father and grandfather through the adoring eyes of a child. Furthermore, the speaker's grandfather dug for turf, a source of fuel, while the speaker's father dug for potatoes. The speaker then outlines a day when he brought his grandfather "milk in a bottle/Corked sloppily with paper." This image evokes the pastoral landscape in which the speaker grew up.
The stanza ends with the lines, "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 language here moves rhythmically and smoothly for a number of lines, mimicking the movement of digging.
This stanza also quietly revives rhyme in the poem. The lines "My grandfather cut more turf in a day/Than any other man on Toner’s bog" rhyme with the lines "To drink it, then fell to right away/Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods" with several lines that do not rhyme between and around them. Why the speaker returns to rhyme is not entirely clear, but the return reminds the reader of the speaker's specific line of work, as a poet.
By separating the word "Digging" into its own sentence, the speaker makes the action a mythical gesture. Digging is beyond his own reach, it seems, so to an extent he idealizes it. However, he seems to believe that he can reach the same transcendental place through his own hard work as his forbearers did through theirs.
The next stanza, the second to last stanza in the poem, reads, "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." The speaker, using lots of alliteration to evoke the sounds and smells he associates with digging, winds through those sensations and, at nearly its end, pulls the reader back into the present tense, paralleling how those sensations bring the speaker back to the past. "But I’ve no spade to follow men like them," he continues. This moment could indicate a disheartening direction, but the speaker does not take any time to consider the merits of writing as a skill versus the merits of digging. He seems to consider them absolutely equal.
Those "living roots" could be interpreted as a metaphorical reference to the speaker family, his living roots. Of course, he describes them to describe how they are cut through; this, appropriately, seems like a reference to the speaker's choice to move away from the farming occupation.
The final stanza begins by repeating the first stanza exactly: "Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests." But instead of comparing the pen to a gun, this time he simply says, "I'll dig with it." One important part of this image is that he says he will use his own tools, his pen, to dig; his point is not that digging is meaningful when it is like writing, but that writing is meaningful when it is like digging. Both actions are sacred to the speaker.