A reading of a classic Heaney poem
‘Digging’ appeared in Seamus Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966. Like a number of the sonnets by Tony Harrison – who was born two years before Heaney – ‘Digging’ is about a poet-son’s relationship with his father and the sense that the working-class son, by choosing the vocation of the poet (but then who chooses it? It chooses them, we might say), is adopting a path very different from his father’s, and his father’s before him. You can read ‘Digging’ here; in this post we offer our analysis of the poem’s meaning, language, and effects.
In summary, ‘Digging’ sees Heaney reflecting on his father, who used to dig potato drills (shallow furrows in fields, into which the potato seeds can be planted) but now struggles to dig flowerbeds in his garden. The poet’s grandfather, he recollects, used to dig peat. And now he, the son and grandson, does not dig the earth at all – instead, he writes, with his ‘squat pen’ in his hand rather than a spade. And yet, Heaney concludes, he can use the pen to perform a different sort of ‘digging’ from that practised by his father and grandfather: he can use his pen to ‘dig’ into his past, the lives of his father and grandfather, and of Ireland more widely.
The poem’s structure is significant not least in the fact that it almost goes full-circle: Heaney begins with the pen in his hand, ‘snug as a gun’ – a suggestive simile, especially given the complementarity of ‘snug’ and the word it spells when reversed, ‘guns’. A gun is a weapon associated with ‘manly’ ideas of war (however misguidedly); a spade is associated with honest manual labour, such as that performed by the poet’s father and grandfather. But the pen is, by comparison, no weapon – yes, as the proverb has it, the pen is mightier than the sword (or the gun or the spade). Yet Heaney rejects this phrase at the end of the poem, replacing the formation ‘snug as a gun’ with a simple declarative sentence, which, unlike the opening of the poem, is set apart on its own line, inviting a pause (and giving us pause for thought?) before he decides, ‘I’ll dig with it.’ The final three words in this four-word declaration of semi-independence proclaim themselves in blunt and direct monosyllables, each one using the flat ‘i’ sound to suggest a no-nonsense approach to the art of writing poetry that will enable Heaney to remain true to his origins. The pen goes from being ‘snug’ (albeit dangerously so, like a gun) to being a tool or implement comparable in hearty usefulness and labour to the spades used by his father and forefathers.
But given that the subject of ‘Digging’ is comparing the art of writing poetry with working with the earth, it is the poem’s ultimate triumph that it provides such a vivid and technically effective description of potato-digging through deft deployment of the tools of Heaney’s trade: alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia. Consider the satisfying sounds of the ‘squelch and slap’, the sound of the words when spoken, as a way of bringing to life the noise of the soggy peat as his grandfather dug into the earth, or the harsh no-nonsense alliteration of ‘curt cuts’, or the pun that we can softly unearth within ‘living roots’, suggesting Heaney’s roots in his family of hardy diggers. We might even say that ‘Digging’ is not merely about becoming a poet in order to delve into one’s own history: the poem itself enacts such an act of delving.
‘Digging’ is a poem that repays close analysis because of such local effects. It’s one of Seamus Heaney’s first great triumphs as a poet and is one of his finest achievements.
Image: Seamus Heaney in the studio with his portrait by Colin Davidson. Painted in 2013. Via Frankenthalerj on Wikimedia Commons.
Seamus Heaney 1939–
(Full name Seamus Justin Heaney) Irish poet, critic, essayist, editor, and translator.
Heaney is widely considered Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poet and has often been called the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats. In his works, Heaney often focuses on the proper roles and responsibilities of a poet in society, exploring themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth as well as addressing political and cultural issues related to Irish history. His poetry is characterized by sensuous language, sexual metaphors, and nature imagery. Soon after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, commentator Helen Vendler praised Heaney "the Irish poet whose pen has been the conscience of his country."
The eldest of nine children, Heaney was raised a Roman Catholic in Mossbawn, County Derry, a rural community in Protestant Northern Ireland. At age eleven he received a scholarship to Saint Columb's College in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and left his father's farm. At Queen's University in Belfast, he was introduced to Irish, American, and English literature and exposed to artists such as Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanaugh, and Robert Frost. While at university, Heaney contributed several poems to literary magazines under the pen name Incertus. After graduating with honors in 1961, he taught secondary school, later returning to Queen's University as a lecturer. During this time he also established himself as a prominent literary figure with the publication of Death of a Naturalist in 1966, his first volume of poetry. In 1969, when fighting broke out between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast, Heaney began to address the unrest's causes and effects in his poetry. He and his family moved to a cottage outside Dublin in 1972, where he wrote full-time until he accepted a teaching position at Caryfort College in Dublin in 1975. He has also taught at Harvard and Oxford Universities and has frequently traveled to the United States and England to give poetry readings and lectures. Having already won numerous awards for his poetry and translations, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
Heaney's first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), is imbued with the colors of his Derry childhood; these early works evince sensuous memories associated with nature
and with his childhood on his family's farm. Evoking the care with which his father and ancestors farmed the land, Heaney announces in the first poem in the collection, "Digging," that he will figuratively "dig" with his pen. In his next published volume, Door into the Dark (1969), Heaney also incorporates nature and his childhood as prominent themes.
Much of Heaney's poetry addresses the history of social unrest in Northern Ireland and considers the relevance of poetry in the face of violence and political upheaval. In his next collection Wintering Out, for example, are a series of "bog poems" that were inspired by the archaeological excavation of Irish peat bogs containing preserved human bodies that had been ritually slaughtered during the Iron Age. Heaney depicts the victims of such ancient pagan rites as symbolic of the bloodshed caused by contemporary violence in Ireland. North (1975) develops this historical theme further, using myth to widen its universality. In such poems as "Ocean's Love to Ireland" and "Act of Union," Heaney portrays the English colonization of Ireland as an act of violent sexual conquest. Field Work (1979) does not depart from Heaney's outrage at the violence in Northern Ireland but shifts to a more personal tone. The collection encompasses a wide range of subjects: love and marriage, mortality, and the regenerative powers of self-determination and the poetic imagination.
Translating Sweeney Astray (1984) from the Irish tale Buile Suibhne allowed Heaney to work with myth, for he brings to the English-speaking world the warrior-king Sweeney's adventures after a curse has transformed him into a bird. Station Island (1984) is also concerned with Irish history and myth. Patterned after Dante's Divine Comedy in its tripartite structure, the central section describes a threeday pilgrimage taken by Catholics to the Irish Station Island seeking spiritual renewal. There the narrator encounters the souls of his dead ancestors and Irish literary figures who speak to him, stirring from him a meditation on his life and art.
The Haw Lantern (1987) contains both parables of Irish life and poems such as "From the Republic of Conscience" and "From the Canton of Expectation." This volume also includes a series of poems entitled "Clearances," which chronicles his relationship with his mother. In Seeing Things (1991) Heaney diverges from his previous emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, returning to the autobiographical themes of childhood experience and Irish community ritual. Feelings of loss and yearning are prominent motifs in the collection, as many poems evoke celebratory images of Heaney's deceased father, who appears frequently throughout the volume.
Critics of Heaney's early work were immediately impressed by his freshness of expression and command of detail. He has been praised for his political poems, especially those that depict the violence between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. In these poems, it has been noted that Heaney also addresses Ireland's cultural tensions and divisions through the linguistic duality of his poetry, which draws upon both Irish and English literary traditions. Critical commentary has traced the thematic development of Heaney's work, contending that as his later poems continue to address the unrest in Northern Ireland, they also incorporate a more personal tone as Heaney depicts the loss of friends and relatives to the violence. As his most recent work diverges from his previous emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, Heaney returns to the autobiographical themes of childhood experience and Irish community ritual. Many critics have lauded these poems for their imaginative qualities and their focus on visionary transcendence experienced through ordinary life events.
Heaney has been commended for his experimentation with form and style, in particular in the volumes Seeing Things and Station Island. His efforts to integrate meaning and sound often result in vivid descriptions, witty metaphors, and assonant phrasing. By most critics he is acclaimed as one of the foremost poets of his generation and is very favorably compared to such poets as Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Michael Hartnett, and Ted Hughes.