Digging is one of Seamus Heaney’s best known poems and appeared first in the New Statesman magazine in 1964. Two years later it was the first poem in Heaney’s first published book Death of a Naturalist.
This book launched the young poet’s career and he went on to become one of the world’s most famous poets, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature no less, in 1995. The only other Irish poet to claim this accolade was W.B.Yeats back in 1923, so Heaney is in the best of company.
Digging is a basic no-nonsense title and reflects the strong feelings Heaney has for the land. He grew up on a farm, Mossbawn in County Derry, where his father worked the soil and sold cattle for a living.
Work, ritual and the need to craft are three of the themes that run throughout his poetry. They are woven with a keen instinct for the special sounds words produce – harsh consonants, deep long vowels – placed on the page with a knowing sense of form.
Here’s what Heaney has to say about the poem:
‘I now believe that the ‘Digging’ poem had for me the force of an initiation: the confidence I mentioned arose from a sense that perhaps I could do this poetry thing too, and having experienced the excitement and release of it once, I was doomed to look for it again and again.‘
And again, from his lecture notes of 1974, Feeling Into Words:
‘Digging’,in fact, was the name of the first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words..’
So it’s quite clear that the author believed this poem to be highly significant, the one that effectively launched him as a bona fide poet. In this respect it is a very personal declaration – the son of the farmer is no longer tied to the land and the spade but will instead use the pen to dig his way into life.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; 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 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, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
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.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
There is no set rhyme scheme for Digging, no established pattern of end rhymes. The only full rhymes occur in lines 3 and 4, sound/ground, but these are what might be called accidental because they are not a part of a scheme. The rounded vowels do however underline the importance of the father’s use of the spade.
Internal rhyme is in evidence, both full and slant: look/Stooping/boot/rooted/cool. And again with: Between/clean/knee/deep/neatly/heaving. Plus: thumb/under/rump/up/lug/cut/turf.
Use of these long and short vowels, with gutterals, brings texture and interest to the sounds, giving the poem a depth of contrast in various stanzas.
Metre (Meter in USA)
There is no set regular metre in this poem although tetrameter, four beats per line, and pentameter lines dominate, especially pentameter, five beats per line. This steady core parallels the action of the digger, steady and without extremes.
The opening lines are iambic tetrameter, four stresses each line:
Between / my fin / ger and / my thumb
The squat / pen rests; / snug as / a gun.
But note the trochees (2nd line, 2nd and 3rd feet) which together with the semi-colon pauses the reader and places stress on pen and snug.
Pentameters follow in lines 3 and 4:
Under / my win / dow, a / clean rasp / ing sound
When the / spade sinks / into / gravel / ly ground.
Both lines have five feet and a mix of iambic, trochaic and spondaic. The spondees bring force to the words – clean rasp and spade sinks – and, especially in line 4, combine with trochees to bring assertive action as the spade does its work.
Shorter lines tend to slow things down, so note that stanzas 2,3,5 and 8 end with short lines to reflect the slowing down of the spadework being observed.
The pen is the spade, the speaker declaring that he will use the pen to dig with, leaving behind the tool of his forefathers, the farmer’s spade.
There are several examples of alliteration, which enhances the sound and brings variety and interest for the reader:
spade sinks/ gravelly ground…tall tops/buried the bright….squelch and slap…curt cuts.
Repeating certain words and phrases in a poem gives the reader a clear message of importance and emphasis. It can also be an echo of the action taking place, in this case that of digging, which is most definitely repetitive.
So look out for the words: digging…spade….down…men…turf.…and the first line and a half…Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests.
Words that sound like what they mean – for example: squelch/slap/soggy.
Digging is an 8 stanza, 31 line poem that starts off in the present, moves into the past and then returns to the present and hints at the future towards the end.
It doesn’t have a set rhyme scheme as such and alternates between tetrameter and pentameter rhythms, with several shorter lines here and there. Essentially it is a free verse poem with strong internal rhymes, alliteration and assonance, typical textured Heaney.
The reader is taken into the mind of the speaker who is watching out the window as his father digs the garden. What is notable is the fact that the speaker holds a pen – from the first line the pen holds the power of the present (and on into the future), whilst the spade used by the father is distanced, a tool of the past.
Gradually the emphasis shifts from the here and now back into the past, a sensual feel for the land with all its smells and sounds dominating the middle of the poem.
The speaker is reflecting on the rural history of his family, the men who worked the land and concludes that they were born and bred for such toil, whilst he is made for something less manual – he will use the pen in much the same way that his forebears used the spade.
A non-rhyming couplet, the opening lines set the scene, giving a close up for the reader of the speaker’s finger and thumb holding a pen (with which he is writing?). This pen is powerful and full of life changing potential – the reference to a gun suggests that it can fire bullets, symbolic ones of course.
Note the slant rhyme of thumb/gun which loosely binds the lines, whilst enjambment sends the reader straight from the end of the first line onto the second.
Three lines, with the third and fourth line fully rhymed which points to a strong bond. Stretching away from the tetrameter of the opening two lines, these are pentameter, allowing for more content.
The speaker can hear someone digging into soil. It’s his father. It must be a familiar sound to the speaker, he knows it’s him even before he looks down. Again enjambment helps the flow of meaning between lines and also between stanzas.
Another increase in lineation, this time four lines, and not a hint of rhyme this time. What does change though is the tense as the speaker, watching his father bend as he goes through the potato drills, goes back in time 20 years, perhaps to when he was a child.
Five lines, the close-up culmination of all his father’s spadework over the years. The speaker was there, observing the hard work, the detail, as his father went about digging up the new potatoes.
Verbs like nestled, rooted and buried sit firmly in the rural landscape, whilst boot, knee and hands bring a strong, physical dimension.
Two simple lines, a condensed summing up of the father’s and grandfather’s skills with the spade, the tool that allowed them to work the earth and produce food for the family table.
There’s a kind of rough pride in the way the speaker boasts about their ability. You can picture the family out in the field, working away in primitive fashion, the father digging, the children helping out, picking up the ‘spuds’ as they were unearthed.
With the introduction of the grandfather the speaker takes the reader deeper into ancestral history. This time it’s not the potato being dug but peat, known locally as turf, which was dried and used for fuel in winter time.
The opening two lines are a child’s tribute to an idealised iconic figure within the family, the local hero, the grandfather, champion turf cutter. Toner’s bog is the name given to a piece of peat bog not far from Heaney’s birthplace, the village of Bellaghy in County Derry.
This stanza brings the reader intimately into a detailed scene where grandfather is out on the bog with his spade and in comes someone with a drink, milk in a bottle. The memory is vivid, the speaker’s observation as keen as the slicing edge of the spade.
Heaney’s use of enjambment in this stanza is particularly apt, working within the syntax to produce relevant flow and pause. Note the repeat of the title word.
The memory of that scene is alive in the speaker’s mind. It takes him back to a different time and in so doing releases him from the past. It’s a kind of paradox. By remembering these strong male family characters and their reliance on the spade for a living, he now is able to wake up.
The family roots are cut, metaphorically and, in his memory, physically. He no longer needs the spade because he is not made of the same stuff as the men of old. This is the enlightment, the acknowledgement.
The final stanza is a near repeat of the opening lines. The speaker again feels the pen between finger and thumb and is now committed to working with it, to dig into his heart and mind and produce poetry.
Staying Alive, Bloodaxe, Neil Astley, 2002