The collection starts in Digging with an apparent statement of poetic intent; it ends in Personal Helicon with the declaration of a deeper quest: Heaney is reflecting on his albeit revolutionary break from his family’s traditional line of business.
The poet is seated behind a window, pen in hand, in the act of composition. He focuses initially on his hand holding his squat pen, the symbolic tool of his trade-to-be. Compared with the elegance of the spades used by his father and grandfather, this pen is unglamorously short and stubby. Heaney lends the pen a small-arms image, warm and reassuring in his grasp, snug as a gun, designed to fire bullets.
The world below Heaney’s window is ‘on screen’. The poet’s attention has been attracted by the sound of digging: a clean rasping sound … into gravelly ground. The man digging is his father, a man feeling his age, his straining rump among the flowerbeds. Heaney Senior is transposed, film-like, to an earlier time: (he) comes up twenty years away. The vocabulary of advancing age contrasts with the vitality and energy observed by the eight-year-old that Heaney was when his father worked the family farm in the mid-1940s, Stooping in rhythm through potato drills.
Heaney describes both the vigorous spade-work with the bright edge deep and its staple yield of natural and emotional treasure: new potatoes that we picked/ Loving their coolness in our hands.
His respect and pride, sworn on oath by God, extend from his father to his father’s father and the line of rural continuity that they represent. Grandfather was a turf cutter, second to none, cutting more turf in a day/ Than any other man. Taking him refreshment, as Heaney did as a child, milk in a bottle/ Corked sloppily with paper (he deliberately selects an adverb that conveys both unpredictable liquid movement and careless preparation) would result in no more than a momentary pause in the old man’s labour.
Heaney’s use of ‘digging’ is suddenly metaphor: his grandfather saw no alternative but to dig down and down; for him there were no short cuts to the good turf; no pain, no gain. The poet’s involuntary memory exudes the smells and textures of Ireland’s waterlogged environment: The cold smell of potato mould and (with effective use of onomatopoeia and alliteration) the squelch and slap/ Of soggy peat.
Heaney concedes he has broken the traditional family blood-line of agricultural continuity and supermen; he is humble to the point of self-deprecation: I’ve no spade to follow men like them. He proposes (repeating the poem’s opening) to follow the example of hard work set by his forebears, using pen not spade, to earn like respect for himself in pursuit of his poetic aims: I’ll dig with it.
- Digging was composed ‘at home’ at The Wood in August, 1964.
- Toner’s Bog was adjacent to his home at The Wood;
- Heaney will burrow beneath the surface of almost everything he touches from personal experiences to the world around him, from personal relationships to the effects of history on human development ;
- 9 stanzas of varying length from 2 to 5 lines (31 lines in total);
- lines grouped largely around 10 syllables; some stanzas end in shorter lines that break the rhythm or permit thoughtful pauses or add emphasis;
- short sentence units are interspersed with the longer sequences; sentence length, internal punctuation and the used of enjambed lines (there is, for example, a sequence of 4 after l.5) offer the reader a variety of rhythm, musicality and emphasis;
- end-of-line rhymes disappear; after starting formally aabbb the poem moves into free verse with the exception of a distant rhyme in v6: day … away; assonant effects provide mid- and end-line rhymes, rhythm/ digging; repetition of old man; a chain provides echo akin to rhyme: edge / head/ them;
- onomatopoeia: squelch/ slap/ soggy; assonance added: smell/ squelch;
- further examples of assonance: [æ] rasping/ gravelly; (ʌ)thumb/ smug/ gun under; rump/ among/ comes/ up;( i neatly/ heaving;( əʊ ) potato/ mould;
- alliteration: provides groups of consonant sounds: sibilant [s] and [ʃ]: squat/ snug/ rests/ sung and later nestled/ shaft/ against/ inside; voiced alveolar [g] of gravelly ground/ digging; its voiceless companion alveolar [k] in curt cuts; finally the aspirant [h] of hardness hands;
- in repeating of the first phrase in the final stanza Heaney confirms his freedom to probe, his preparedness to work hard in pursuit of the linguistic ‘good turf’; the amendment from snug as a gun to I’ll dig with it also betrays an intention to say what he feels without pulling punches;
- the style includes vigorous verbs, alliterations, enjambed lines and assertive diction placed strategically at the end of lines for emphasis;
- Michael Parker’s Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet notes the following style: rapid succession of images of decay … burdened rhythm … monosyllables predominate … accretions of alliteration and assonance(p.55);
- Neil Corcoran’s The Poetry of Seamus Heaney suggests the onomatopoeia of the squelch and slap/ Of soggy peat lends itself to parody (p.2).
- Gaelic poetry provides other examples of spade and pen metaphor (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.40);
- in Preoccupations p.(43) Heaney refers to a big coarse-grained navvy of a poem
- Heaney comes face to face with his former boyish self (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.62);
- the dénouement for Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet signifies: regret … resolution .. independence (p.63);
- the poem is concerned, ultimately, to enforce a moral and propose an aesthetic (Neil Corcoran The Poetry of Seamus Heaney p.3);
- Heaney confesses in ‘Feeling into Words’ his memory of a proverb from his childhood: ‘the pen’s lighter than the spade’;
- an issue opens up immediately: the proper relationship between this poet and his first community (Neil Corcoran The Poetry of Seamus Heaney p.10) ;
- when pressed about weapon images in his pre-Troubles poems Heaney stresses his inherited, non sectarian, non aggressive approach to political issues, yet concludes, enigmatically: who’s to say for definite about these things (especially when I, the poet, remain unsure how I might have felt at the time!) (Dennis O’Driscoll Stepping Stones p.83);
- The specific dilemmas associated with Heaney firing ‘bullets’ via the published therefore publicised response of a literary celebrity to political situations especially during the Troubles have not yet emerged; they will resonate through sections of Heaney’s future work where his political stance will remain stubbornly neutral. For the moment, however, Heaney betrays within the first couplet of his first published collection an idealistic declaration of intent, a kind of mission statement. We will be able to assess its wider accomplishment in the light of what we read.
- Heaney, whatever the discontinuity his future career will entail, is born of a line of succession between him and his family (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.38).