Seamus Heaney – Digging – Analysis. Poetry Lecture by Dr. Andrew Barker


Like all of the Mycroft lectures,
I’m going to read the poem through, and then give you
a line-by-line analysis of what Heaney is
telling us in this poem, and then put it in the simplest English I can,
and then come back and explain the more beautiful ways
that explain why Heaney has told the poem in the way that he has
rather than the simplistic, prosaic way that I will explain the poem to you. The virtue of me explaining the poem
to you in this way is that you will know what the poem’s content is.
You will know what the poem is about. And after that, you can look at the
poem’s form to look at the wonderful ways that Heaney has chosen to
give us what he wants to say in the poem. Here we go.
This it the first reading of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’. “Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun. Under my window, a clean rasping sound
As 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.” The first relevance of this poem
is that it is the first poem of Seamus Heaney’s first collection,
‘Death of a Naturalist’, and it operates as
a kind of mission statement. Heaney is telling us
right from the very start what kind of poet he is going to be. And it’s all there, everything
that he does in his whole career; everything he achieves
is there nascent in this first poem. It’s a wonderful piece. It is
in many ways deceptively simplistic, but there’s Freudianism in there, there’s
Marxism in there if you want to see it, but let’s look at this
line-by-line analysis of the poem. “Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” Simple enough.
He’s holding a pen in his hand. ‘The pen is in my hand,
and it’s very comfortable’. The type of pen he is holding is
presumably a fountain pen. You know the ones,
they’re short and fat. Short, fat, squat pen
that he’s going to write with. Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests. The pen he’s holding in his hand
is not doing anything. It’s waiting there,
but it feels comfortable. It feels as “snug as a gun”.
It’s a simile. Something is compared to something else
in terms of ‘like’, or ‘as’. The pen feels as “snug as a gun”. Over the years, I’ve heard many different interpretations
for this “snug as a gun” simile. Surely the simplest one is that
a gun does feel comfortable in your hand. The gun is built to fit your hand.
The pen is built to fit his hand. One could also say that,
if you imagine a pen; big, fat pen being held in your hand to write with,
and you take the pen out of the way, you’ve kind of got a gun-like
hold in your hand, with the pen removed. Seamus Heaney, coming from Northern
Ireland at the tail-end of the 1960s, he was almost obligated to be affiliated with
the troubles in Northern Ireland; the near civil war
in the north of Ireland. As soon as somebody from that area of the world
mentions a gun, it has an extra import. Whether Heaney intended that
at this early in his career, I don’t know. Whether he intended to see this “snug as a gun”
simile with any political import, I’m not so sure. What I do think is that
the “snug as a gun” simile is certainly calling us to deal with the
‘pen is mightier than the sword’ idea. We’ve all heard this one –
we say the pen is mightier than the sword you can do more by writing
than you can by fighting. And nowadays, we don’t use swords,
we use guns. So I think by saying, “the pen feels as snug as a gun”,
he’s bringing that to our attention. But, suffice to say, at this point,
Heaney is sat in a room, he’s got a pen in his hand, the pen feels
comfortable, but he’s not writing. The next stanza begins, “Under my window, a clean rasping sound 
As the spade sinks into gravelly ground” Heaney is really good; as good as anybody
I’ve ever read, on onomatopoeia. He’s able to write of things with a
sort of onomatopoeic emphasis, that conjures up the sound
of the thing he is describing. He is describing a spade here, going into gravel.
So the spade digs into the gravel. Listen to how Heaney describes it. “Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground” This “clean rasping sound”- we can hear the spade
going through the small stones in the gravel. Gravel is of course,
made up of small stones. “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.” So Heaney is up at his window,
and he looks down from his window, and he sees his dad there, and he sees his dad digging
outside in the gravelly ground. He sees his dad there,
and he remembers something. This noise outside, the spade cutting into
the gravel conjures up this memory, and the memory is “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. So how can something go down
and then come up twenty years away? Well, plainly it’s a memory. He sees his dad as an old man
digging outside, he remembers him digging
twenty years ago. And notice here how Heaney pays
attention to the aging process. When he sees his dad as
an old man in the present, he has this straining rump,
‘rump’ being his back side, and ‘straining’, it’s painful for
an old man to do some digging. But when he imagines his father
bending low and coming up twenty years away,
when his father was twenty years younger, “bends low, comes up twenty years away
stooping in rhythm through potato drills where he was digging.” The straining rump twenty years ago
is stooping in rhythm. It’s much easier for his dad to do
the job that he was doing. So what we’ve got here-
we’ve got the boy trying to write a poem, and he looks out of his window,
and he sees his dad digging, and the sight of his dad digging
makes him remember his father digging twenty years before. “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.” “The coarse boot nestled on the lug.” Now, if you think about what Heaney is
actually writing about here, if I was to say to you,
‘this is all very poetic’, what people tend to think about with
‘poetic’ is, usually romantic poetry. We talk of- if something is poetic,
it’s usually to do with love, and clouds and beautiful things.
That’s not necessarily true. That’s one of the things
that poets write about. What Heaney is writing about here
is his dad digging a hole in the ground. He’s paying specific attention to
the way his father’s foot would rest on a spade
as he dug out potatoes. It’s difficult at first to imagine
a less poetic image. But look how Heaney’s
specific attention to detail turns this totally unpoetic image
into something that is poetic, and I know it’s poetic because
it appears in this poem. “The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.” Now, if we get a spade here,
that is the lug of a spade, and that is the shaft. Now, if you imagine
me digging this, “the coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
against the inside knee was levered firmly.” That’s what he’s describing there.
“The coarse boot nestled”: the rough boot, ‘course’, rough. The rough boot nestled
gently against the lug of the spade. Whether he achieves in making
the digging of a hole beautiful here, I don’t know; but I can’t say I don’t
think he manages to get poetry out of it Because he does manage
to get poetry out of it. “The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.” What he seems to me to be able to do
is make it professional. There’s nothing accidental
about the way his father digs a hole. And this will become
more important later. “He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked, Loving their cool hardness in our hands.” ‘Tall tops’ are a type of potatoes,
so he rooted out tall tops. “buried the bright edge deep” Heaney is a master at what we would call
well, what Heaney himself calls, ‘seeing things’ When he won the Noble Prize, he won it for
a book of poetry called ‘Seeing Things’. And ‘seeing things’ can mean
two different things: it can mean say we have a madman who hallucinates,
and we say, ‘that man is ‘seeing things’ that’s noticing things
that aren’t there. But the other thing we mean by
‘seeing things’ is is noticing things that
other people don’t notice. One could argue that the
Irish poet William Butler Yeats was the ‘seeing things that
weren’t there’ type of poet, whereas Heaney is the Irish poet
who can see things that are there. He is the guy who sees
the “bright edge” of the spade. And the bright edge of the spade is
the bottom edge of the spade, the bit that actually
goes into the ground first, and the reason that that edge is bright
is because it has been shined up by continual friction with earth,
and gravel, and digging, the act of digging itself. It shows that his father is very professional.
It shows that he works hard, the edge of his spade gleans,
that bottom edge gleans from work, and Heaney notices this. “He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked, Loving their cool hardness in our hands.” And I love this line, because
it suggests to me that only somebody who had actually
done it would know to mention it. And it’s the fact that when you dig
potatoes directly out of the ground, they’re cool and hard. So what you can imagine here is his
father working up a potato drill, and his dad has got his spade in his
hand and he’s digging up the potatoes and throwing them back, and Heany
and his brothers in his family are are going behind him
to pick up the potatoes. And he remembers this kind of
‘golden childhood’ memory. And he remembers this specific part
about it of how as kids they loved picking up the potatoes and loving
the cool, hardness in their hands. He’s very good with these
‘golden childhood’ memories, Heaney is. I’ll read this stanza again. “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”
that’s the bright edge of the spade. “buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked, Loving their cool hardness in our hands.” Lovely bit of writing. “By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.” “By God”, if we were to translate that
into modern parlance, I’d hear it as “wow”. The “by God” is an indication of
how impressed he is at at his father’s prowess at manual labour. “By God, the old man
could handle a spade.” When we say ‘to handle something’, it
means we can control it, we can do it. We may say,
‘that man knows how to handle a car’. Or, we often hear, ‘he knows how to
handle a gun’ in a Western (film). “By God, the old man
could handle a spade.” Even though it is manual labour that he
is doing, and his tool is just a spade, the man knows how to do it. Now, you could be good at handling a spade,
and you can be bad at handling a spade, and if it is your job to handle a spade,
it’s far preferable that you are good at it, than bad at it. That’s what he notices about his dad,
it’s what he seems to be quite proud of here. Well, ‘seems to be’, this is what he
blatantly obviously is, very proud of here “By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.” And Heaney’s thought process now skips back
a generation. He thinks of his grandfather. His grandfather also had
prowess at manual labour. And Heaney tells us another one
of these golden childhood memories, the first one being, him and his family
going behind his dad as his dad dug potatoes. And the second one is this,
the stanza goes: “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.” Toner’s bog is obviously a place
where his grandfather worked. His grandfather was
one of the guys who would dig peat. Peat is found in Ireland, it’s
– you can use it for burning, you can use it for building with, and someone has
to go out and dig the peat from the peat bogs. It doesn’t sound like the most
glamorous of jobs, but like most employment, you can be
good at it, and you can be bad at it, and if it’s your job to dig peat,
it’s better to be good at it, than bad at it. And plainly, his grandfather was
very good at it, as he tells us, “My grandfather cut more turf in a day
than any other man on Toner’s bog.” This is the memory he has
of his grandfather. “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.” Now, the memory is of Heaney as a young boy,
taking some milk out for his granddad, and his granddad gets the milk,
and he drinks the milk, and he doesn’t stop. He takes the milk, drinks it, presumably gives it
back to Heaney, and continues on with his work. Just a small touch in this that I quite like
is the fact that he brings his grandfather milk in a bottle ‘corked sloppily with paper’.
Well, why would it be corked with paper? As I remember, milk bottles,
they were corked with tin. But of course, Heaney was raised
on a farm, he grew up on a farm, and the milk would come from a cow,
and you need something to cork the bottle with. So, there are pieces of newspapers, presumably,
that you’d cork the bottle with it, and the young boy takes the milk out
to give it to his grandfather. It’s a sort of small detail that
we lose over time, and I like the inclusion of that. It situates the poem in a social context
perhaps of days gone by. Just a small detail that I like. “Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up to drink it, then fell to right away”
‘Fell to’ means continued. His granddad gets the milk,
drinks it, straightens up to drink it, and ‘fell to’,
continues back with his digging. “Heaving sods over his shoulder”
Sods are turfs. “Heaving sods over his shoulder” This ‘heaving’ suggests how
heavy the turfs are that his grandfather is digging and
throwing over his shoulder. “Nicking and slicing neatly”
is good as well; this is that Heaney’s attention to
the way words sound, he wants to make the
words in which he describes the digging of turf sound like the act
of turf-digging itself. And that’s the “nicking and slicing
neatly”. We can imagine his granddad cutting the turf, ‘nicking’ it and
‘slicing’ it neatly, and then heaving the sod over his shoulder. Great writing. “Going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.” And we’ll come back to that line,
because it yields a lot more than than is apparent on first reading. But
we need to get to the end of the poem to really be aware of its relevance.
I’ll read the stanza again. “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. We have this attention to sound working
beautifully here once more, “the cold smell of potato mould”
this is the memory, the memory of his dad digging potatoes.
“the cold smell of potato mould the squelch and slap
of soggy peat,” This is the sound of his granddad
digging the peat. “the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head. “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” I’m going to come back to this line about
‘the curt cuts through living roots awaken in my head’ in a minute.
But Heaney reaches an acknowledgement here. “But I’ve no spade
to follow men like them.” He knows that his ancestors,
his family have all been manual labourers, but he is not. He is upstairs in a room in a house,
trying to write a poem. “I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.” Now, what does he mean by
“I’ll dig with” the pen? I think this is a great metaphor. What he’s saying is, he’s going to use his pen
in the same way as his parents have used- his family, his granddad, his father,
have used their spade. He’s going to dig with his pen.
Now, what is it- well, first off, how has he shown his dad and his
grandfather using spades? He has shown them with an extraordinary
degree of professionalism, capability, attention to detail; this is what Heaney wants to be able
to do with his pen. The pen is the tool of his trade, in the same way
that the spade is the tool of the trade of his family. “I’ve no spade to follow men like them” ‘My tool is a pen,
and I will dig with that pen.’ Now, what does he mean by ‘dig’?
As soon as we know that he’s creating an analogy between the
digging that his parents have done, and the digging which he wants to do with
his pen and poems, it invites us to extend that analogy through other times that
digging is mentioned in the poem. So, he’s going to dig with his pen,
so he’s going to go down deep, he’s going to work hard with it,
he’s going to be very professional in his
attention to detail, he’s going to be a good writer- all of which he achieves, and more. But note this other time
that digging is mentioned. In the stanza beginning,
“my grandfather cut more turf in a day” we hear at the end,
“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.” His grandfather goes down
and down for the good turf. So ‘the good turf’, the good stuff you
want to get from digging is deep down. So, it seems to me Heaney is saying that
what he wants to do with his pen is think deeper thoughts
to get deeper poems. Go down through the layers to get the stuff
that’s deeper down, that’s what he wants to do. It’s not just that he’s going to work hard,
but he’s going to get deeper, the deeper stuff, “down and down for the good turf, digging.” Heaney somewhere describes poetry-writing
as being like archaeology. You go down through layers to find the
stuff which you’re after. And by ‘stuff’, I mean the things which
you’re going to use in the creation of your poem. I think this digging analogy, you could even argue
that it’s there in the poem itself. I mean, Heaney’s up in the room,
and he looks down and he sees his dad, he looks out the window and
he sees his dad there digging, and this conjures up an image for him
of his dad twenty years ago, and this conjures up an image for him
of his granddad years before that; and this down here,
he finds the realization that his family’s prowess at manual labour
is something that he can use. I said earlier that there’s –
to not overstate the case – to see that there’s a Marxist element in this,
and by a Marxist element, I only mean that it pays attention to an economic situation.
Now, Heaney was one of the first generation of children to be educated away from the
intellectual capabilities of their family, perhaps? To be educated away from the
intellectual expectations of their family. Now, he describes his family somewhere
as, ‘literate, but not literary’. Meaning they could read, but they weren’t
that interested in the educational process. But he was, he was obviously
an extraordinarily bright kid, and he was a beneficiary of the idea that
very clever kids from working class backgrounds could attain university education. And he took good advantage of this,
and succeeded at it brilliantly. This happened at the
beginning of the 1960s. So Heaney being one of the cleverest kids
in his area gets a university education. You can imagine how this would happen
when this happens around any country, that the kids who have got the university education
come back, and they meet their parents, and they have nothing in common with them. The kids are all very educated,
and they’re interested in the stuff that educated people are interested in,
and they come home and they see their parents out digging,
and theres’a disconnect. This doesn’t seem to be-
“this doesn’t seem to be” This flat out isn’t
the situation that occurs to Heaney. Rather than looking at his parents
and thinking, ‘they’re out digging holes, I’m so glad
I don’t have to do that, what a horrible job’ he looks at it very positively.
He looks at it and says, ‘there’s a capability there that I want.
There’s an inheritance there for me.’ ‘This ability to work hard,
this ability to do the job well,’ ‘that’s what I’m going to take from them.’ ‘I’ve got a different tool to do the job with,
but I’m going to inherit that from my family.’ “The curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head. But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” When he says, “but I’ve no spade to follow men like them”,
he almost says it out of regret. And the “men like them” means, that’s not, ‘idiots like them’,
that’s more, ‘gods like them’. These people who have a capability
that I know that I don’t have. “The curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.” “Roots” of course, has two meanings.
In one instance, it’s a part of a plant; the potato is of course a root plant, so we can have
the curt cuts of the spade through the potatoes. But “roots” is also,
your family, where you come from. And Heaney is acknowledging here
that he is being cut off from his roots. “I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” But this doesn’t bother him. He’s going to take what he can from
their prowess at manual labour, and use it for his work, for his writing, for his poetry,
and become the poet that he indeed became. So, before I read the poem through
for you once more, one other aspect that I quite like in this
is the idea of a poem being ‘metafictive’ and ‘metafictive’ is a word that means it’s fiction
that draws attention to its state as a text. And a lot of poems do this. Poems about the act of writing poems,
this being Seamus Heaney’s mission statement, he’s saying, ‘these are the type of poems
that I want to write, the ones that go
“down and down for the good turf”‘, where I’ve worked hard to get them,
got the deep thoughts by that hard work.’ But there’s a circularity
in this poem that I like. If we imagine at the start the boy’s upstairs,
the boy, the young Heaney, the young poet-to-be this Nobel Prize winner
getting ready to write his first poem, he’s upstairs and he wants to write a poem,
looks down, sees his dad, this reminds him of his granddad, this clarifies to him,
the type of poet that he wants to be, and he says finally,
“Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests.” And where previously he said “snug as a gun”,
now he says, “I’ll dig with it.” And you get the idea that he’s now
going to write a poem. “I’ll dig with it.” And the poem starts, and the poem
that he’s going to write is of course, the poem that you’ve just read. I always imagine the sort of
circularity in the poem, as we finish it,
it goes back to the beginning again. We read the poem ending with
the declaration that, ‘I now can write the poem that you’ve just read.’ So. Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’,
I’ll give you a final read through of it, and now you should be able to understand
what’s happening in this poem. “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.” Thank you very much.
Hope you enjoyed the lecture.

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