Digging * SEAMUS HEANEY * Poetry

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; 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 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, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, 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.

Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.
Source: Death of a Naturalist (1966)
The poem begins with our speaker at his desk, his pen poised to begin writing. He gets distracted by the sound of his father outside, working in the garden, and this sends our speaker into a spiral of memories about his father working in the potato fields when the speaker was a young boy. The memory stretches even further back to his grandfather and the hard work he did as a peat harvester (there’s all kinds of hard work going on). Eventually, our speaker snaps out of his daydream, and we find him back at his desk, ready to get to work on his writing.
The poem starts and ends with the same lines “between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests” but the first stanza ends with “as snug as a gun” and the last stanza ends with “I’ll dig with it.” Thus, Heaney foregrounds the importance of the writer’s profession and craft by breathing new life into the cliched idiom “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
Heaney affirms that he has decided to choose his own career path, as a writer. It is clear that Heaney feels confident that he is very skilled with a pen and demonstrates and proves that he is an accomplished poet by writing this very thought provoking poem.
Heaney realizes that in choosing ‘the squat pen’ over ‘the spade’ he is in fact ‘digging’ up memories of his ancestors, and thus enabling the process of the historical past giving meaning to the present. So all in all, he draws the conclusion that whilst we must not forget our roots,we must pursue our own passions and dreams in life.
For Heaney, it is his chosen calling as a writer in which he finds solace, which enables him to transfer memories onto paper, giving old thoughts the power to transcend time.
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