Jan 102012
 

At a Potato Digging

 

Heaney’s dedication to his Irish roots is endemic to his poetry. His feeling for the great misfortunes visited upon his race finds expression via the Irish famine disasters around 1845.

This stern sequence of four poems reflects on Ireland’s almost total reliance on the potato as a staple-food in good times and bad.

 

I

In countless cultures Mother Earth (here a divinity worshipped on the altar of the sod) presides as a pagan symbol over planting and harvesting. The legendary importance to the Irish of the potato harvest explains the reverence Heaney lends it.

The first stage in this ‘present-day’ harvesting process is mechanised and brutal: A mechanical digger wrecks the drill.

What follows is labour-intensive, manual and age-old: Labourers …/ Wicker creels …/ Fingers .. dead in the cold. The potato-pickers in large numbers swarm in behind; the poet reduces them to crows attacking crow-black fields; their varying speed of progress implying twisted disorganisation: A higgledy line … ragged ranks

The vocabulary is deliberately chosen to fuse back-breaking labour and reverence: stoop … bow … bend. The figures only stand tall for a moment, upright and in pairs, to carry full baskets to the pit (where the potatoes are, of tradition, preserved) before bending to the task once more as they stumble back/ To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.

The postures and the numbed fingers provide a display of reverence to the black Mother (the distinctive clay-earth colour of the fields). The full baskets that are carried automaton-like, mindlessly as autumn, assume a pseudo-religious Processional character.

Dependence on the potato provides the historical basis for this annual, unchallenged, quasi-religious subservience: Centuries / Of fear and homage to the famine god/ Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees/ Make a seasonal altar of the sod.

  • 4 quatrains of based around 10 syllable lines, formal rhyme scheme abab cdcd;
  • rich use of alliteration: {k} like/ crows/ attacking/ crow-black; [h] higgledy/ hedge/ headland; [k] breaking/ rugged/ ranks; [s] straighten/ stand/ stumble/ recurs/ mindlessly/ as /centuries/ seasonal sod;
  • land and sea fuse in the assonant [ʌ] crumbled surf; modernity alongside human frailty: [ɪ] mechanical/ digger/ drill; [ʌ] stumble/ crumble/ trunks/ fumble;
  • verbs reflect the sorry, enslaved state of the people: wrecks/ swarm/ stoop/ go dead/ stretch/ straighten/ stumble/ bow / bend/ fumble;
  • pagan references to unquestioning devotion and accepted subservience to Mother …famine god … altar of the sod are accompanied by Heaney’s use of fishing vocabulary (creels … fish) suggestive, perhaps, of the bounty of Jesus’ miracle of the ‘loaves and fishes’.

II

By the end of the poem Heaney’s consciousness will have entered Irish history.

Senses ablaze, the poet’s eye zooms in on the potato-drill and the exposed tubers. He notes initially the visual variations between potatoes (Flint-white, purple);  then he ‘touches’ their round and smooth shape and their texture as they lie scattered haphazardly in drills like inflated pebbles, akin to caged ‘animals’ Native/ to the black hutch of clay.

They are the product of halved seed-potatoes shot and clotted. The tubers produced have texture (knubbed), human features (slit-eyed) and, in the petrified hearts of drills, a solid quality.

Those split open by the harvesting process reveal their internal colour: white as cream. Heaney’s instinct confirms the smell as healthy. He can touch the rough bark of humus that throws up knots of potatoes (as if umbilically attached to the Mother earth); he can feel their solidity, their wet insides, anticipate what they will offer to the taste-buds, the taste of ground and root.

 

A sudden change of mood is awakened by nasty historical associations: these same new, smooth skinned potatoes conjure up images of human remains found in mass graves: piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.

  • the traditional planting of half seed-potatoes is still used as a ploy for doubling the yield;

 

  • sonnet form in two equal stanzas; lines based upon 7 and 8 syllables; sentence lengths are initially short; punctuation breaks up the flow. In contrast, the penultimate sentence leading to the Armageddon-like foreboding of the final line is enjambed;
  • a partial rhyme scheme once developed persists to the end;
  • alliteration and assonance run hand in hand: vowels [ai] [ɪ]  and consonant [p] Flint-white/ purple/ lie/ like inflated pebbles/ Native; [u]  and [ʌ] exudes/ humus/ erupts/ crumbled;    
  • assonance: [ɒ] shot/ clotted; [ɪ slit-eyed/ drills/ split;
  • unusual transitive use of erupts/ knots of potatoes;
  • vocabulary of unease: petrified/ split ;’slit-eyed’ becomes blind-eyed;
  • Heaney’s move into a bleak period of history is further announced by use of oxymoron live skulls that will be repeated as a motif.

 

III

The live skulls image of dead men walking in ii has triggered flash-back to the potato famines around 1845. Heaney recounts the fate of those caught up in them, the wild higgledy skeletons, twisted by illness; the native Irish who scoured the land, so famished that they wolfed the blighted root and died. Cause and effect are described with fatal simplicity.

The devastating speed with which the blight reduced millions of potatoes from sound as stone to putrefied in a matter of days is followed by a pattern of hunger and emaciation affecting millions of Irish people: eyes died hard/ faces chilled to a plucked bird./ In a million wicker huts,/ beaks of famine snipped at guts.

The famine has become a metaphor for the Irish condition: a people hungering from birth, reduced to grubbing; a race grafted with a great sorrow, marked with an indelible reminder that has never gone away.

The words used to describe the historical conditions in these very fields (stinking …fouled… pus… filthy) are powerful reminders, even now of an indelible stink of resentment caused by political factors emanating from London that did nothing to mitigate poverty and famine-death: you still smell the running sore.

 

  • this exceptionally bleak poem is of twenty lines in  5 quatrains with a recognisable abab cdcd rhyme scheme;
  • the 2 single-line sentences provide further emphasis of misfortune that can be dwelt upon in oral delivery;
  • hunger is depicted as a predatory bird;
  • the weave of unhealthy data can be associated with the different  senses, the low blood-sugar  level, the temperature and sickly skin colour likened to poultry on the slab : chilled to a plucked bird;
  • died hard associates ideas: eyes that had lost their healthy glint also revealed a hardening of attitude and projected an unwillingness to forgive;
  • Heaney provides streams of sonic echo: [ai] live/ blind-eyed/ wild/ blighted died, [ei]  lain/ days/ clay; [ɪ] million/ wicker/famine/ snipped; [au] sounds/ fouled/ mounds; [ʌ] hungering/ grubbing;
  • without exception the verbs reflect the dirt, disease, decay and death ofblighted existences (the metaphor of ‘blight’ is intimately connected in the British psyche with the Irish experience);             

IV

A return to the present brings a lightening of mood. Beneath the gay flotilla of gulls that scavenge the fields, the spud-pickers enjoy a welcome break: healthy food and tea in bright canfuls.

Dead-beat they flop, exhausted, yes, but no longer sick and dying; the harvesters are fit, well and as grateful for the food-break as all those who have preceded them in this annual ritual, breaking timeless fasts. Ditches now bring them shelter not disease; they have sufficient fare to afford, even, to throw away, to spill/ Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.

Heaney challenges the higher purpose that permitted such past suffering thus rendering this faithless ground somehow unhallowed.

  • 2 quatrains of broadly 8 syllable lines; rhyme scheme abab cdcd;
  • alliteration: [b] brown/ bread/ bright;[d] dead-beat/ down/ ditch;
  • assonance: [ɪ] ditch/ fill; [æ] thankfully/thanks/ scatter;
  • times have changed and previous vocabulary now has a different connotation (dead-beat, ‘very tired’ now rather than deceased; this is) obvious in relaxed postures; the potato pickers continue, perhaps unwittingly, via their spills and crumbs, to make age-old pagan offerings, libations and crusts on the altar of the sod (from i).

 

The sequence as a whole:

  • potato famines around 1845 led to poverty, sickness and death on a grand scale; for example, typhus was rampant in 25/32 Irish counties by February 1846;
  • the potato becomes the emblem of a nation’s suffering (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.69);
  • MP notes the inadequate and inept responses of the British Government (p.69);
  • II contains several more rapid and bewildering metamorphoses (ibid 70);
  • III contains dehumanising verbs, blurs distinctions between human, vegetable and animal;
  • IV sits in a relatively easeful present (ibid p.70) with ironic undertones from previous sections.