Digging is one of Heaney’s earlier poems, where he writes about the conflict in his mind about the decision to take up writing as a career. His family have been farmers for generations, and for him, in such an environment, to choose the pen over the spade as a tool, involves a big decision, and much soul-searching.
“Digging” is one of his earlier and cruder poems, reflecting a much rougher style. His themes are very direct, and the impact created is not as significant as some of his later work. The poem reflects an internal struggle as he comes to terms with his career, that of a poet, and breaks with his family tradition of farming. He attempts to connect to the past and continue the tradition, at the same time there is a note of independence and resolution.
Style of Poem
The style is rough and crude, and his soul-searching is mirrored in the stanza lengths. At the start of the poem, the stanzas are terse and to the point. However, they soon expand in length, and the syllabic patterns keep changing, as his mind wanders and searches. As the poet reaches his conclusion however, the stanzas return to their former brevity, as the poet comes to terms with himself.
Analogy with Hughes’ Poem
Heaney’s poem has a close analogy with Hughes’ thought-Fox. Hughes had a strong influence on much of Heaney’s writing, which displays itself in many of his poems. Although the subject matter of the poems are very different, both place their poets behind a window, pen in hand, in the act of composition. The sight of his father digging below conjures up a memory for Heaney, as the image of the fox conjures up Hughes’ poem. And as the fox enters into “the dark hole of the head”, these associated memories merge in Heaney’s head, and emerge as words on the page.
Internal Conflict of Heaney
Heaney was perhaps wary, even embarrassed, of his vocation as a poet. There must have been occupational tension at first, especially since Northern Irish Catholics weren’t very supportive of literature. For generations his forefathers had been farming, and for Heaney to substitute a “spade” for a “squat pen” is ground-breaking, as well as rewarding, as the Nobel Prize clearly speaks. Yet, the initial hurdle was difficult to cross, as Heaney sets his feelings down in this poem.
Imagery Revealing Details of Farm Life
The opening imagery of the poem is powerful, as he compares his pen with a gun. It could perhaps suggest the power of the written word. As he sits writing, he can hear a “clean rasping sound”, “[his] father, digging”. There is a comparison apparent, between his mental labour, and his father’s physical labour, the rasping of the spade and the silence of his pen.
He has seen his father doing this for twenty years, “stooping in rhythm though potato drills”. There is a certain pattern, “rhythm” in a farmer’s life. Heaney admits that there is a certain enjoyment and sense of fulfilment in farming, which he has so far not been able to find in his vocation.
The physicality of the labour is described here, as opposed to mental labour. The movements of the farmer, as he “scatters] new potatoes” in the earth. Heaney is in awe of his father, admiring his skill and expertise, and at the same time proud of his family tradition, as “the old man could handle a spade /just like his old man”. He also remembers his grandfather, who could “cut more turf in a day / than any other man”, working on his farm. He admires his determination, skill and expertise, as he “fell to right away”.
Reconciles Conflict Within Himself
Heaney’s poem has a quality of honesty, as it conveys farm life as it really is, rather than a cover-up. He portrays it as hard work, performed with simple pride, with no pretensions whatsoever, amongst “the cold smell’’, “the squelch and slap”. He relives his childhood experience, yet he doesn’t want to follow in his forefather’s footsteps. Though his roots are farming, he honestly admits that he has “no spade to follow men like them”. His reason for choosing another vocation is not that he feels it is beneath him or ashamed of it, rather on the contrary, he feels great pride for his family traditions. However, he feels that he is not cut out for that life, and since he has more choices than his father or grandfather had, he exercises those choices.
Heaney confidently closes the poem with his doubts settled. He respects his father’s occupation, yet chooses to follow his own path, and choosing “the squat pen” as his spade, he determines to “dig with it”.