Seamus Heaney – ‘Digging’

On Tuesday we’ll be looking at the work of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. On Tuesday I gave you a selection of his poems to read (if you weren’t in class, you can pick up a handout from my office). You should  read all these poems before we meet, but for now I’d especially like you to focus on ‘Digging’. Here it is:


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
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 coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, 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.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

As usual, please post your thoughts, comments and questions about the poem below.

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16 Responses to Seamus Heaney – ‘Digging’

  1. I think the poem talks about the 3 generations, and what they are good at. The persona first tells us what he is doing at that moment, which is holding a pen. Then we learn that the persona’s father and grandfather were good with the spade. He complements their abilities of “digging” and “cutting turf”, using the spades. Afterwards, when the persona says “I’ve no spade to follow men like them” and then reminds us of the pen in his hand again and says “I’ll dig with it”, we understand that he is different than his father and grandfather. We understand, he can’t use a spade, and he’s no good at digging. He justifies this lack of ability in using a spade like his father and grandfather by his talent in writing. Those men dug with the spades, and the persona shall write with the pen.

    Also the “turf digging” can be associated with death, and the persona might be trying to convey that all these memories of “potato mold” and “carrying milk” are past, because they, or at least the grandfather is dead. We can also understand this from the way the grandfather digs “down and down for the good turf”. Is he digging deep enough, maybe, six feet? This could mean that the persona’s father and grandfather worked on the fields all their lives, only to die in the end. Whereas the persona refuses to use a spade to dig, and he prefers using a pen to write, which, as a cliche, means that he will be immortal.

  2. b20902819 says:

    Although the title, “digging” is used in its primary meaning in the beginning of the poem, it also holds different, less visible meanings. The speaker is waiting with his pen in his hand, so digging might also refer to his search for something to write about. Later in the poem, he talks about his memories of his father and grandfather. So in a sense, he digs into his past while he also digs his mind and soul to find an idea or an inspiration which would get him writing.

  3. I would like to comment on the relation between the first two lines and the last three lines, as it is quite interesting in terms of word choices and themes. The lines, “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun” (1-2) lead us compare “pen” and “gun”. Firstly, this similarity may refer to writing in political context, as “gun” is associated with war, defence, authority, crime and so on. So, we can say that while ‘gun’ refers to active political or military issues, ‘pen’ may refer to indirect political issues since resolutions, laws, and decisions upon many important issues are written down. Bullet and ink may have very close relationship in this context. Heaney’s employing this analogy may be a reference to the Irish history, which is full of conflicts and resolutions about the destiny of the country and its people. However, another interesting point is that the speaker actually compares his pen with his father and grandfather’s spade, which makes a connection between active and passive deeds again if we think that writing is usually thought as a passive action though it is not. “Spade” refers to the production, fertility and gain from the land just as the speaker’s father and grandfather lead to these earnings by digging. On the other hand, the final lines “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it” (29-31) brings a resemblance between pen and spade through the action of digging by leaving behind the similarity between pen and gun. Here, ‘digging’ with pen has deep meanings. While ‘spade’ is digging for material production through the land, pen is digging mind for reaching up to deep meanings and emotions. Pen’s digging is the flow of emotions, ideas and thoughts from mind upon papers, which is again a literary creation. At large, the speaker refers to the connection between generations in spite of the passage of time along with the change in the ways of life.

  4. ‘The Grauballe Man’

    Q6: I would like to talk about the poem’s connecting victims of the paramilitaries of Northern Ireland with the Dying Gaul and the Grauballe Man by discussing the theme of identity and appearance vs. Reality. Firstly, the lines “With the actual weight/ of each hooded victim” refer to the situation in which paramilitaries of Northern Ireland often placed hoods over the heads of their victims before executing them. This brings up the issue of neglecting, hiding or covering true identities of victims by avoiding their faces, feeling and ideas. There is the idea that these people are victims of conflicts, so they are viewed as same, which minimizes these people’s sincere roles in their cause. The Dying Gaul and the Grauballe Man are also victims who bring images of atrocity together in different ages. To begin with the Dying Gaul, his identity is also distorted, as he is associated with both “beauty and atrocity”. That’s to say, although he is sculptured as a dying man, we cannot see a wounded, weak or pathetic soldier, but a physically strong and able man. He is perfectly sculptured, but actually he is the defeated one with downcast eyes, and he has this moral weight of ‘hooded victims’, who are ‘slashed and dumped’ by him also. This may refer to man’s harsh, cruel treatment of their brothers as the Dying Gaul did in his lifetime as a warrior. This also brings up the issue of appearance vs. reality. The sculpture will remain in our minds with its perfect visualisation, but the story behind that sculpture is a sad, ironic one, which is usually neglected, because visual art may be more effective on human beings. That’s why, human beings are prone to judge people with their appearances. The same issue is going on with ‘the Grauballe Man’. The speaker describes this man with many negative metaphors and similes such as ‘bog man’, which lead us to have a negative impression of him at a first glance. Besides, the Grauballe man is contrasted with the heroic ‘Dying Gaul’. However, the Grauballe man is a real victim, who may be emblem of victims in the Irish history, full of conflicts while the Dying Gaul was killing men without thinking about the bond of brotherhood. The Grauballe man is a bog man, but the speaker says, “but now lies/Perfected in my memory,” . This line again brings contrast between appearance and reality, so The Grauballe Man was a victim of atrocity, but he will be an image of beauty in memories forever through this piece of literature.

  5. In the poem Heaney is doing the same thing as his father and grandfather but in a different way.It is the sound of his father digging which causes him to look down and for his memory of “digging” to begin.He conveys the noise of the spade as it digs into the ground:”clear rasping sound”; “nicking and slicing “; “the squelch and slag of soggy peat.”There is a central extended metaphor of digging and roots, which shows how the poet, in his writing, is getting back to his own roots (his identity, and where his family comes from).The title signifies he is digging into his past. This is particularly evident in the line “and comes up twenty years away”, as it shows how he has made the transition from the modern day into the past.Seeing his father (now old) “straining” to dig “flowerbeds”, the poet recalls him in his prime, digging “potato drills”. And even earlier, he remembers his grandfather, digging peat.He cannot match “men like them” with a spade, but he sees that the pen is (for him) mightier, and with it he will dig into his past and celebrate them.

  6. ie20902343 says:

    In this poem, there is a difference between the father, grandfather and the speaker. The speaker states that his style is different than the old generation as he chooses to ‘dig’ with his pen, rather than with a spade. Perhaps the reason why is because the speaker would like to show his reaction to his homeland, nationality and identity with literature, with the use of language. Here potato digging and man’s closeness to agriculture and land (in Ireland) is emphasized. So, the persona reveals his Irish identity not in the field, but in literature, his use of language. By talking about the earth, digging potato and spades he reflects his interest in the roots, metaphorically family traditions and national values perhaps.

  7. The poem focuses on the act of digging in both literal and metaphorical way. However, even though the main focus is the act of digging, I think the fact that they are digging in the potato fields is also important. Potato is an important part of Irish diet. And the greatest famine Irish people faced was unofficially called potato famine, in which many Irish died. One of the results of the famine was an increase in Irish nationalism and it became an important subject for Irish writings. So, the poet might be referring to his ancestors’ working in the potato fields, which hold a major importance in Irish history. His father and grandfather are the ones who raised him to who he is today and their history and tradition internalizes the act of “digging” in the potato fields. With the rise of Irish nationalism, the poet is no longer digging in the fields in the literal sense, however, he is digging into Irish history with his pen. It is no longer an act of survival. On the other hand, his metaphorical digging is somewhat revolutionary.

  8. 20801343l says:

    I think the poem “Digging” is the name of the poem where Heaney thought his feelings had got into words. At the back of the poem, there can be a sense of guilt at having departed from family tradition to take up pen rather than spade. The speaker’s pen becomes an agricultural implement like the father’s spade. The speaker uses this basic metaphor, the pen as spade, in order to explain his relief that he can use his pen instead of gun. I think Heaney celebrates the diggers’ intimacy with the land, and the skill with which they carry on old family traditions. As a poet, Heaney may want to feel a part of all this. Just as the diggers extract new produce from the ancient soil, he reasons, so the poet explores his experience to produce poems. It is the natural, easy movement, the precise control of his father and grandfather that he particularly wishes to embrace. Even though the speaker wants a different way of life from his father and grandfather, he still feels bound to them. He prefers to make his own way choosing “the squat pen” as his spade, though he respects his father’s job. It is clear that the poem ends in affirmation. By the end the gun has gone, replaced we may assume by the heroic strength.

  9. 20801870ss says:

    In this poem, the poet clearly shows that he is not going to be like his father and grandfather.
    because their job is common and they are labourers that he does not want to be. However,
    his view as a son of father (and grandfather) is respectful and admiring of their hard work, skill, physical well-being, and dignity. But it is quite apparent that his labor is not about being a farmer, he wants to use his writing skills in order to get a respectful labour in the society. Therefore, one can say that this poem has a great value for him because it reflects his decisions on his career and it is like a map which shows his route in life.
    Moreover, when we look at the structure of the poem, it is written in a free verse with eight stanzas. Additionally, there is no rhyme schme between the lines apart from “thumb” and “gun” in the first two lines; “sound”, “ground” and “down” in the second stanza; and “men like them”. As for its narrationi there is first person narration. For example, “in the first line of the poem “between my finger and my thumb”. In addition, when we look at the title of the poem, it is quite surprising that it is not about the life or ideas of the persona but it is all about his family which consists of three generations. His father and grandfather were interested in digging and the persona is also digging his old memories through his writing related to digging that make the title interesting.

  10. n20900754 says:

    In this poem, Heaney compares himself to his father and his grandfather in a sense. The poem begins with the present tense, where Heaney describes his father when he is digging the field. The statement, “I looked down” gives the sense that it has a dual meaning, as in, while the speaker is literally above his father, watching him from the window, he may also have this feeling of superiority. In the following stanzas, Heaney takes us to the past where he talks about his grandfather and his skills at digging. Reading these lines, we understand that it is the family tradition to work on the land but Heaney has broken this tradition by choosing to become a writer. As I stated earlier, Heaney makes a comparison between himself and his forefathers: While his father and grandfather used the spade, Heaney uses pen in order to earn his living. As his grandfather digs down with a spade to find good turf, he digs down with his pen to find good stuff to write good poetry.

  11. b20801711y says:

    In Seamus Heaney’s poem,’Digging’ the poetic persona apparently suggests that he is not going to be like his father and grandfather since he finds their ancestral job as common and he does not want to be labourer at the fields just like his ancestors. on the other hand, his point of view about his father and grandfather consists of respect and admiration for their hard work,grace and talent. However, when we analyse the poem, it can be clearly understood that his labor and effort is not about becoming a farmer, he wishes to evaluate his writing skill in order to get a respectful occupation in the society.

  12. artun352 says:

    The title “Digging” can be read from different perspectives. While digging is what his father and grandfather do to earn their living and create a life that the persona has benefited from now the persona both separates himself from his father and grandfather that is the tradition of making life out of agriculture as adopted by the family members and also creates a connection between his profession and theirs. As they dig with the spade he will dig with his pen “Between my finger and my thumb/ the squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it”. His interpretation of digging firstly presents itself in the form of digging into his memories, his mind and bringing out the past days to remember and use as the subject matter of his profession, which can be understood as the second meaning of his digging. We can say that he digs into not only into his past and but also the past of the country and the history of Irish people. Through the act of digging into the past, and writing about it with a “squat pen[…];/ snug as a gun” the persona shows his appreciation of his roots, national values (which are the traditional way of earning life through agriculture and working hard to look after your family). The simile with the “gun” shows that he is also working hard and fighting for his nation, country and the past although not actively with the spade but with the pen as powerful as a gun.

  13. artun352 says:

    On the Bog People “The Grauballe Man and the Dying Gaul”
    We can see Seamus Heaney’s fascination with Bog people through his poems The Grauballe Man and Punishment. We can say that Seamus Heaney associates the destiny of these bog people with that of Irish people. The fact that although they are thrown into the bog in order to be gotten rid of and forgotten, they manage to preserve their physical existence with the aid of the thing that was supposed to wife them off can be interpreted as a resistance against oppression and punishment by the stronger, which Seamus Heaney might have presented as the condition of the Irish people under the oppression of English authority. Seamus Heaney dramatizes these dead but perfectly preserved bodies and describe their victimization with a tone of admiration and fascination

    but now he lies
    perfected in my memory,
    down to the red horn
    of his nails,

    hung in the scales
    with beauty and atrocity:
    with the Dying Gaul
    too strictly compassed (37-44)

    Here Seamus Heaney resembles The Grauballe Man to the Dying Gaul, which is a Greek sculpture that describes a defeated and dishonored Celtic soldier. The relationship between the dying Gaul and the Grauballe Man, I believe is that they both represent the victimization of Irish nation and nationality and their resistance to oppression. We can say that although the sculpture sets out to depict the Dying Gaul’s defeat and shame with his sword lying on the floor beside him as a sign of the elimination of his masculinity and honor, in a sense it glorifies and empowers this Celtic soldier. The statue depicts the Gaul as an embodiment of male beauty. He looks beautiful even when he is captured and wounded. The statue is also named as the Dying Gladiator, which also refers to the Gaul’s excellent fighting skills and physical power. So we can say that the Dying Gaul in demonstrating the defeat of a Celtic worrier actually turns him into a well-know object of power and beauty. In the same way the Grauballe Man’s body is objectified and turned into a public figure that sheds lights on “atrocity” and represent “beauty”. Bog man’s resistance time and decay makes his oppressors’ efforts unavailing and turns his victimization into an image of beauty.

  14. ceren20601875 says:

    In the second line of the poem, Heaney writes “The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. In the Irish struggle against British rule, he does not show his discontent and protest using guns like the IRA, instead he uses his pen and poetry, as in “The Grauballe Man” and “Punishment”. Even though “Digging” may not seem to be as political as the exemplified poems at first sight, I think it is since it shows his dissatisfaction with the political situation of Ireland. Ireland was under British imperial rule and the British tried to instill the idea of their own superiority and consequently Irish people’s inferiority into the Irish by considering them only fit for and reducing them to physical labour. It became an Irish tradition to work on the land; the speaker respects his father and grandfather for it and is proud of their hard work and work ethic, however he rejects the idea of physical work being the only choice for him and he takes up his squat pen and writing. He does not completely reject his past and history and uses the pen for digging, just like his father and grandfather did with the spade; going down through the earth into history to reveal what is hidden through his pen and writing.

  15. I think, considering how early it is presented, and at the end of the first couplet at that, the gun imagery is very important. Poetry, or literature in general, was used thoroughly and quite efficiently indeed by the Irish, and Heaney is no exception. He intends to preserve the spirit of the land that is passed down to him from his father and grandfather, depicted as strong personas, both pysically and in character, through his literary work. Considering how tumultuous the socio-political situation of Ireland was during the poet’s time, it is evident what he intends to accomplish with his pen, depicted both as the gun, and the spade that does the ‘digging’.

  16. 20804215k says:

    I want to touch upon family theme developed in ‘Digging’. In the poem there are 3 male members of the speaker’s family who belong to successive generations. It is obvious in the poem that the speaker wants to compose a different career and identity for himself than his father and grandfather. His family members’ way of living gives the speaker an inspiration to become a writer. He appreciates his father’s and grandtaher’s hard working and he gives importance to the effort that they have made for making their own lives. Following their way of hard working, the speaker wants to focus on a different area of work. It seems that dealing with agriculture (both of his elders are farmers) is a kind of heritage among the male members of the speaker’s family. By choosing a different area of interest, he seems to challange a continuing tradition. By choosing a different occupation, he challanges the ideals of the family and brings about a new way of life.

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