At a Potato Digging

Heaney builds his sympathy for the Irish condition into this bleak sequence via particular reference to the great misfortunes suffered by his fellow countrymen during the Irish potato famines between 1845–8. All four poems explore Irish dependency on its staple potato crop. Heaney is asking why anyone should be surprised at long-term Irish grievance resulting from the non-response to rural hardship of those who over history have imposed insensitive government from Whitehall in London.

I

In many cultures Mother Earth (presented here as a divinity worshipped in Ireland on the altar of the sod) presides as a pre-Christian symbol over planting and harvesting. The legendary importance to the Irish of the potato crop explains the reverence Heaney lends it. This first piece, a bird’s-eye view, is set in ‘modern’ times.

The first stage of the potato-harvest is mechanised and brutal: A mechanical digger wrecks the drill.

What follows is labour-intensive, manual and age-old (Labourers …/ Wicker creels) under even the most inhospitable conditions (Fingers .. dead in the cold).

Potato-pickers gather like bees (swarm in behind) resembling from a distance crows attacking crow-black fields their varying forward momentum forming sorry, untidy higgledy line ( ) ragged ranks. 

Verbs describe both back-breaking labour and reverence: stoop … bow … bend. The paired figures only stand upright (tall for a moment) to carry full baskets to the pit (where the potatoes are preserved) before they stumble back and like trawler-men fish a new load from the crumbled surf.

Bodies and numbed fingers adopt postures of reverence to the Mother; the bending figures that lug full baskets automaton-like (mindlessly as autumn) resemble a pious Processional line.

To Heaney this subservience is born of hardship: Centuries / Of fear and homage to the famine god have developed an Irish body-shape (toughen(ed) the muscles behind their humbled knees), ready-made to bend in annual prayer for a successful harvest: Make a seasonal altar of the sod. 

South America’s Pacha Mama figure (Mother Earth)and the first potatoes grown there from 2500 B.C., were brought from Peru by the conquistadores and probably introduced in Ireland around the time of the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland; Heaney hints at this pre Christian element in i and iv.

  • digger: earth-digging machine;
  • wreck: destroy, smash up;
  • drill: row in which potatoes are grown;
  • spin: throw up;
  • mould: rich organic matter;
  • labourers: unskilled manual workers;
  • swarm: crowd (like bees);
  • stoop: bend downwards;
  • wicker: made of pliable (willow) twigs;
  • creel: large wicker basket; used by both fishermen and potato-pickers;
  • dead: numb, with no feeling;
  • higgledy(-piggledy): untidy, muddled; all over the place;
  • headland: field edge;
  • break ranks: fail to remain in line;
  • ragged: untidy, broken;
  • pit: trench, hole in the ground;
  • straighten: stand erect after bending;
  • stand tall: both ‘stand erect’ and ‘stand proudly’;
  • crumbled: fragmented;
  • stumble: trip, almost fall;
  • load: batch, collection;
  • surf: (resembling) the line of waves breaking on the seashore;
  • trunk: body;
  • fumble: handle clumsily, almost drop;
  • processional: relating to a religious procession;
  • turf: grassy surface;
  • mindlessly: half-wittedly, without having to think of it;
  • homage: reverence, respect;
  • famine: acute food shortage;
  • humbled: both ‘bent’ and ‘brought down’;
  • altar: central table in a church where offering are made;

 

  • 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 before history: [ɪ] mechanical/ digger/ drill; [ʌ] stumble/ crumble/ 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

The poet’s eye zooms in on the potato-drill to settle on the haphazard scatter of potatoes. Sense data abound: initially the tuber’s colour variations (Flint-white, purple); then the smooth touch and rounded shape like inflated pebbles; the likeness to caged animals in the soil (Native/ to the black hutch of clay). From seed potatoes, cut in two for maximum yield, the tubers grew (shot) and coloured(clotted) developing texture (knubbed) and human features (slit-eyed), they lie now like petrified souls in the hearts of drills, in anticipation of mass graves alluded to at the end of the piece.

Torn potatoes reveal(white as cream) and a smell that Heaney’s experience confirms as healthy. He knows the rich, crusty Irish ground (the rough bark of humus) that disgorges (eruptsknots of potatoes born of the Mother earth); what he holds in his hand – their solidity, their wet insides –  heralds  the taste of ground and root, the flavours they will offer to the tongue.

In a violent change of mood Heaney’s consciousness enters Irish famine history: the life-sustaining potato suddenly conjures up images of death, of human remains found in mass graves:  piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.

  • flint: hard rock (generally greyish in colour);
  • scattered: spread randomly;
  • inflated: air-filled;
  • hutch: rabbit-cage;
  • halved: cut in two;
  • shot: both ‘gave out shoots’ and ‘mixed different colours’;
  • clotted: set;
  • knobbed: with lumps and bumps;
  • slit-eyed: resembling long, narrow eyes;
  • tuber: plant (e.g. potato) whose fruit comes from its underground stem;
  • petrified: (as if) turned to stone;
  • spade: sharp-edged tool for digging;
  • exude: discharge, give out;
  • bark: tough outer protection;
  • erupt: discharge, give out;
  • knots: cluster, tangle;
  • skull: head-bone;
  • 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;
  • the traditional planting of half seed-potatoes effectively doubles the yield;
  • oxymorons: live-skulls, blind-eyed 

III

Via the live skulls image of dead men walking in ii Heaney’s mind has triggered flash-back to the potato famines of the late 1840s.

He recounts the fate of those caught up in it, the gaunt, confused Irish (wild higgledy skeletons) who scoured the land for nourishment, were so famished that they wolfed the blighted root and died (cause and effect 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 resulted in unfolding hunger and emaciation witnessed in their bodies (eyes died hard/ faces chilled) and comparable to dead poultry on the butcher’s slab (a plucked bird); without exception (In a million wicker huts); accompanied by vulture stabs of stomach-pain (beaks of famine snipped at guts).

Heaney’s famine metaphor signals his view on the history and condition of Ireland as a whole: a people hungering from birth, reduced to scavenging for sustenance (grubbing) a race marked (grafted) with a sense of worthlessness (great sorrow) sufficient to defeat aspiration (hope rotted like a marrow).

Both metaphor and reality (stinking …fouled… pus… filthy) trumpet Heaney’s conviction: those in political power who repeatedly failed to address poverty and famine-death in Ireland, who even blamed the Irish themselves for their condition, are responsible for on-going resentment: you still smell the running sore.

  • balanced: sitting unsteadily;
  • scour: search thoroughly;
  • wolf: devour greedily;
  • blighted: spoilt, poisoned;
  • putrefy: rotted, decayed, went bad;
  • lain: been lying;
  • clay: stiff, impervious earth;
  • tighten: stiffened, tensed;
  • chilled: shrivelled, wrinkled;
  • plucked: from which the feathers have been removed;
  • beak: sharp pointed jaw;
  • famine: acute food shortage;
  • snip: peck sharply;
  • guts: entrails;
  • grub: poke around in soil;
  • grafted: left with an indelible mark;
  • marrow: gourd;
  • foul: contaminate;
  • pus: liquid from infection;
  • filthy: squalid, sordid;
  • running sore: oozing infection;
  • 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 dramatized in delivery;
  • hunger is depicted as a predatory bird;
  • a weave of unhealthy data is associated with the different human senses, the low blood-sugar level, the temperature and pasty colour likened to poultry on the slab : chilled to a plucked bird;
  • died hard associates ideas: eyes lost their healthy glint and showed a hardening of attitude;
  • 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 of blighted existences (the metaphor of ‘blight’ is intimately connected in the British psyche with the Irish experience);              

IV

Return to modern times from the dark narrative of iii has brought a lightening of mood: beneath the gay flotilla of gulls that scavenge the fields, the pickers enjoy a welcome break of healthy food and tea in bright canfuls.

Dead-beat they flop, exhausted but no longer at death’s door, treated to as much refreshment as they can consume (take their fill) eating their first meal of the day as of tradition: breaking timeless fasts. Ditches now bring them shelter not disease.

Celebrating the bounty of Mother Earth they make a double offering: spill/ Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts (note on the altar of the sod of poem i)

Here perhaps lies the sting in the tail: replacing the wine and host of Holy Communion with a non-Christian equivalent somehow challenges the ‘Higher Purpose’ that permitted such past suffering and rendered this faithless ground unhallowed.

  • flotilla: resembling a fleet of ships;
  • gull: seabird scavenger;
  • deaden: slow to a halt;
  • dead-beat: completely exhausted
  • flop: fall in a heap;
  • ditch: channel to carry water away;
  • fill: until their hunger is satisfied;
  • break … fast: eat for the first time in the day; suggestion of recurrent famines;
  • faithless: without religious conviction (implication of ‘pagan’);
  • spill: sprinkle;
  • libation: drink offered to a deity;
  • scatter: throw like sewing seed;
  • crust: outer skin of a loaf of bread;

 

  • 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;
  • vocabulary has a different connotation (deaden and dead-beat no longer represent death);
  • via their spills and crumbs the potato harvesters make age-old offerings: libations and crusts on the altar of the sod of i;
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

 

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first sentence, for example, weaves bilabial [w] into a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b], alveolar [t][d], velar [k][g]) alongside alveolar sibilants [s][z] and nasal [m];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang

 

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 (MP 69);
  • MP notes the inadequate and inept responses of the British Government (ibid69);
  • ii contains several ( ) 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 70) with ironic undertones from previous sections;