Digging by Seamus Heaney: Summary and Analysis

Digging by Seamus Heaney was first published in 1966 in his poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist. He deals with the themes of root consciousness and respect to the ancestors in this poem.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

At the beginning of the poem, the speaker is sitting at his desk with a pen that is resting in his hand. He compares the pen to the gun with the use of simile. Suddenly he is diverted by the continuous sound of digging outside by his father. His father is digging potato field with the help of spades. He travels back to his past with the imagination and finds his grandfather digging for peat. Ultimately, the speaker comes back to the present being ready for the writing.

In the first couplet and last tercet of the poem, the speaker repeats the same line “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests.’ Using this refrain, he implies the message that he has been digging with the pen which is as powerful as the gun. As he digs into the memory, he finds the tradition of digging in both father and grandfather. Then he is digging into the memory as symbolized by ‘bog’. Then, this bog is the symbol of personal memory where he digs to identify the personal history.

He proudly declares that his father was the digger who followed the tradition of digging from his father when father dug for the potato drills, grandfather dug for the turf. Whatever the reason is, they were digging for their survival. His father and grandfather are the simple digger. They have not done anything great, but he finds greatness in the trifling family history. It is his root, which may be ugly, but it is always lovely. The change might have come in the nature of digging, but the tradition of digging has continued.

The digging of his parents differs from the digging of a son. When the son digs, he digs for history in which he is proud. He finds rhythm in his personal history. What is personal that is political. So, he wants to celebrate the root consciousness by exploring into the personal history, which for him is as important as the Irish history.

Now, the speaker digs for his identity. His going for family history means that he has gone for his root or origin. His digging can thus be seen with root-consciousness in mind. The speaker listens to the rhythm of the sound produced by the digging of his father and grandfather. He finds his family history sweet, musical and melodious. He comes from a long line of diggers, and he seems pretty proud. Both the father and the grandfather seem to be pretty hard-working, tough men, and the lines in the poem continue to emphasize that fact by calling our attention to the grandfather's constant effort.

Heaney is aware by the end of the poem with the fact that his skill of digging with a pen is as powerful as his forefathers’ act of digging for the survival. Though the mode of digging is absolutely different from that of his ancestors, he is giving continuation to the tradition of digging, but with a pen. His ancestors used manual force to dig, now he is using his intellectual force to dig. When he says, ‘I’ll dig’ in the end of the poetry, he is sure with his writing career and proud enough for his selection.

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