Analysis of Seamus Heaney's poem 'Digging'

Is it possible for the past and the present to be intertwined without the need to be identical in every respect? At what point does the degree of variation cause the profundity associated with the aforementioned connections to falter? How does such faltering result in a subsequent loss of meaning? The comparison of a pen and a shovel may seem a bit obscure, however, this truly adds to the potency and allure of “Digging.” The poem chronicles the perspective of a young man who is sitting at a desk in his room, preparing to write. While deep in thought, he considers his station in life and looks to his paternal lineage for direction. Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” dramatizes the conflict between the need to hold onto the traditions of the past and desire to embrace the ventures of the future.

From the desk in his room, the speaker holds a pen in his hand and enters a highly contemplative state; he discusses his past and present in a manner that reveals his outlook on life. The speaker notes his grip on his pen and applies various descriptions in order to carefully craft a sense of internal conflict: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. When referring to his grip on the pen, the speaker first employs the words “rest” and “snug” to create a relative feeling of ease. Shortly thereafter, the speaker utilizes an enjambment followed by a simile that employed the word “gun” to bring an end to the previously-established sense of ease and expose the storm that was raging within. The speaker soon redirects his focus to his father: “Under my window, a clean rasping sound / When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: / My father, digging. I look down”. The speaker immediately implements the use of a physical barrier in the form of a window; the window is meant to show the division between father and son. As if a physical barrier is not enough, the speaker goes on to create a sense of stark contrast between his actions and those of his father. Whereas the speaker was in a resting state, his father was actively engaged in strenuous manual labor. In a way, it is almost as if the speaker is figuratively looking down on his father for the line of work that he is in. Upon observing his father below, the speaker has a flashback to his youth: “Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds / Bends low, comes up twenty years away / Stooping in rhythm through potato drills”. The speaker clarifies the fact that his father is performing manual labor in his leisure time. It is soon revealed that the father’s inclination toward physical work stems from his time in Ireland; in Ireland, his father performed manual labor for the sole purpose of providing food for his family. The aforementioned statement further reinforces the occupational divide between father and son.

Now, firmly embedded in discussing the past, the speaker seems to address his father’s occupation with a bit more consideration; he seeks resolution as to the worth of his father and grandfather’s lines of work in order to put his mind at ease. The speaker touches upon the basic imagery associated with 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”. The speaker seems to be struggling back and forth between viewing his father’s work with an air of condescension or respect. As the speaker progresses it becomes increasingly clear that “The details the speaker remembers are as precise as the digger’s work: ‘nestled on the lug,’ ‘against the inside knee,’ ‘levered firmly,’ the ‘bright, deep edge [edge deep],’ Through these we understand that the poet respects his father’s craft”. In the coming lines, the speaker openly declares his admiration of his father’s skill: “By God, the old man could handle a spade / Just like his old man”. The speaker further compliments his father’s dexterity and mentions his grandfather as well. From that alone, the speaker is able to develop the fact that digging is not just an occupation in his family, it’s a tradition. As the speaker transitions from his father to his grandfather, he maintains the same air of respect. He recalls visiting his grandfather in the fields: “My grandfather cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner’s bog”. The speaker seems to possess great admiration for the skill of all those who came before him. Whereas the speaker’s father dug for food, his grandfather dug for fuel.

After looking back on the great deeds of those who made up his paternal lineage, the speaker reviews his prior assessments and draws conclusions about his own future. The speaker then proceeds to make a bold declaration: “Through living roots awaken in my head / But I’ve no spade to follow men like them”. The speaker openly acknowledges the deep-rooted connection he feels to the past and the traditions set forth by his family. However, he also comes to terms with the fact that he will never be able to follow directly in his family members’ footsteps. The speaker uses repetition to craft a powerful conclusion: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests / I’ll dig with it”. Although the speaker will never dig with a spade, he comes to understand that he can dig in his own way. By holding onto has past and accepting his present, the speaker gives himself a sense of finality as it relates to his station in life.

Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” dramatizes the conflict between the need to cling to the traditions of the past and urge to embrace the callings of the future. The speaker begins by falling into a deep state of thought and discussing events that display his worldview. He goes on to attempt to determine the value of his father and grandfather’s lines of work to put his turbulent mind at ease. After looking back upon the deeds of his family members, he reviews his prior assertions and draws conclusions about his own future. In the end, the connection between the past and present was strengthened by variation rather than weakened.


  1. Heaney, Seamus. “Digging.” Reading on the River, edited by Chattanooga State, Fountainhead Press, 2017, 228-229.
  2. 'Overview: 'Digging'.' Poetry for Students, edited by Mary Ruby, vol. 5, Gale, 1999. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 25 Feb. 2019.        
24 May 2022
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