‘Digging’ was composed ‘at home’ at The Wood in 1964. Pen in hand the poet is sitting behind a window when the sight of his father provides the poetic charge.

He focuses initially on the hand holding his squat pen, the symbolic tool of the trade to which he aspires. Compared with the elegance of the spades used by father and grandfather, his 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’. His attention has been attracted by the sound of digging: a clean rasping sound … into gravelly ground. The man bent at the task is his father, strenuously engaged and humorously conspicuous via his straining rump among the flowerbeds.

Heaney Senior is transplanted in the poet’s mind to an earlier time: comes up twenty years away. Any suggestions of advancing age contrast with the vitality and energy noted 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 (the bright edge deep) and the emotional treasure it yielded: new potatoes that we picked/ Loving their coolness in our hands.

His respect and pride, sworn on oath by God, are extended 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 untidy preparation) would lead to no more than a momentary break 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; there were no short cuts to the good turf; no pain, no gain. The effort required applies to the poet’s task: capturing memories triggered by events, transmitting in word the smells and textures of Ireland’s landscape (The cold smell of potato mould), producing decent poems by the most effective use of stylistic devices … onomatopoeia or alliteration: the squelch and slap/ Of soggy peat.

Heaney concedes he has broken the respected family blood-line of agricultural continuity: I’ve no spade to follow men like them. His declared intention (repeating the poem’s opening) is to follow their example of hard work and, using pen not spade, earn like respect for himself in pursuit of his poetic aims: I’ll dig with it. Heaney confesses in ‘Feeling into Words’ his memory of a proverb from his childhood: ‘the pen’s lighter than the spade’. He will set out to give both equal weight.

  • squat: stocky, solid
  • snug: cosy, reassuring;
  • rasp: scrape against something solid, stony;
  • gravelly: adjective describing loose, small (‘-y’) stones;
  • straining: making a great effort;
  • rump: buttocks, hind part;
  • drills: straight rows in which plants are sown;
  • coarse: rough, unrefined;
  • nestle: lie close to, snuggle;
  • lug: shoulder of a spade;
  • haft: handle
  • lever: move with a concerted effort;
  • root out: dig up, pull up by the roots;
  • handle: manipulate with skill;
  • turf: layer of grass;
  • Toner’s Bog: adjacent to Heaney’s home at The Wood;
  • cork: bottle stopper (literally made of cork)
  • sloppily: a pun relates the untidiness and wetness of the arrangement;
  • fell to: returned to his task;
  • nicking: making a small cut;
  • slicing: cutting chunks;
  • heaving: lifting with effort;
  • mould: furry, fungal growth;
  • squelch: sucking sound of pressure on wet ground;
  • slap: strike with a flat object
  • soggy: wet and soft


  • In Preoccupations (43) Heaney refers to Digging as ‘a big coarse-grained navvy of a poem’;
  • Heaney comes face to face with his ‘former boyish self’ (MP 62);
  • the dénouement for MP signifies: ‘regret … resolution .. independence’ (p.63);
  • the poem is concerned, ultimately, ‘to enforce a moral and propose an aesthetic’ (NC 3);
  • an issue opens up immediately: ‘the proper relationship between this poet and his first community’ (NC10) ;
  • when pressed about the use of a weapon image in his pre-Troubles poem Heaney stresses his inherited, non sectarian, non aggressive approach to political issues, yet concludes enigmatically: who’s to say for definite about these things (DOD83);
  • as with the mud grenades (of the following poem, Death of an Naturalist) Heaney suggests how easy it is for the reader to visit sociological motives on what, for the poet, was an entirely phonetic prompt, a kind of sonic chain … the connection between the ‘uh’ sounds of ‘thumb’ and ‘snug’ and ‘gun’ that are at the heart of the poetic matter rather, perhaps, than containing some kind of sexual pin in them just waiting to be pulled (DOD 83);
  • 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;
  • the dilemmas associated with Heaney firing ‘bullets’ (as the published responses of a literary celebrity to political situations) have not emerged at this point; they will resonate through sections of Heaney’s future work where, despite his evident sympathies, 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.
  • Heaney, whatever the discontinuity his future career will entails, is born of ‘a line of succession between him and his family’ (MP38);
  • 9 stanzas of varying length from 2 to 5 lines (31 lines in total);
  • lines grouped largely around 10 syllables; stanzas end in half lines breaking the rhythm or adding emphasis;
  • the rhyme scheme is equally diverse: 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 sonic chain provides echo akin to rhyme: edge / head/ them;
  • onomatopoeia: squelch/ slap/ soggy; assonance added: smell/ squelch;
  • examples of assonance: (ʌ)thumb/ smug/ gun under; rump/ among/ comes/ up;( i:)  neatly/ heaving;( əʊ ) potato/ mould;
  • alliteration: provides groups of consonant sounds: sibilant [s] and [sh]: squat/ snug/ rests/ sung and later nestled/ shaft/ against/ inside; voiced alveolar [g] of gravelly ground/ digging and its voiceless companion alveolar [k] in curt cuts; finally the frictionless [h] of hardness hands;
  • Heaney’s final repetition of an early phrase emphasises his right to say what he feels, freedom of expression; the final half line sets out the way in which he intends to wield his poetic weapon: I’ll dig with it
  • the poetic form includes vigorous verbs, alliterations, enjambed lines and assertive diction placed strategically at the end of lines for emphasis;
  • MP notes the following style: ‘rapid succession of images of decay … burdened rhythm … monosyllables predominate … accretions of alliteration and assonance’ (p55);
  • NC suggests the onomatopoeia of the squelch and slap/ Of soggy peat lends itself to parody (p2);


  • 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: thirteen 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 lines, for example, weave together a cluster of plosives (bilabial [b] [p], alveolar [t][d]) alongside sibilant [s] and nasals [n] and [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/ anger;

One thought on “Digging

  1. David – I always interpreted Heaney’s use of the “squat” pen tells us he viewed his father and grandfather as working harder and him working smarter…yet, out of respect, he defers to them as greater men…

    What say you?


    Stephen Power
    Son of a Mason

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