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Aug. 7th, 2011 | 05:55 pm

Seamus Heaney  (1939-)


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as 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 could 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, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, 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.

- from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

I love this poem. I did an explication of this poem in my English Literature class. Here is the introduction I wrote:

In a world of dying traditions, maintaining a sense of historical pride is challenging. Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” explores the speaker’s internal conflict regarding his desire to maintain a connection with his ancestral past. It is revealed immediately that the speaker is a writer. Throughout the course of the poem, the speaker recalls moments in his past and contemplates the rapid changes occurring amongst his people. Raised in a family of potato farmers, the speaker feels distanced from his father and grandfather and is unsure of how to relate his chosen field of work to that of hard laborers. The title, “Digging,” conjures multiple meanings, and the speaker reconciles his chosen work by using the pen as his tool.  The speaker is able to sustain his cultural identity by digging--not in the literal sense--but rather by unearthing his memories.

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