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.