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Analysis of Seamus Heaney Poem Digging

Categories: Poems

I will approach this piece of coursework by first analysing both poems separately and then talking about their similarities and differences at the end. The two poems have similar themes in that they are both about the poet’s memories of their ancestors. They are both about how the poets deal with their feelings by writing a poem. The poem is about a man who has grown up on a farm in which his ancestors have always worked digging for potatoes.

The man in the poem feels guilty because he feels that he is letting his predecessors down because he has found a talent in writing.

He feels that he does not want to dig for a living. The poem starts in the present tense. In the first line you find out that the poem is personal because of the word “my”. The unusual simile “The squat pen rests, snug as a gun” is odd because guns are not thought of as snug or cosy so perhaps he is showing that the pen is like his weapon and can be very powerful or effective in some way.

In the second stanza the man hears a sound from “under his window. ” The poet uses onomatopoeia to describe the sound, which gives us a sense of hearing and being able to imagine the “rasping” sound.

There is also alliteration with “spade sinks” and “gravely ground. ” The persona knows what the “rasping” sound is without even looking down, probably because he has got used to hearing it over the years.

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This is because sound is shown to trigger off memories in this poem. The third stanza begins with the reader being told what the noise was. It says that the father is working on the flowerbeds, which implies that the father is quite old because he only digs up flowers now and does not dig for potatoes anymore. Then there is a flashback to twenty years earlier, where the poem changes to past tense.

The persona thinks of his father working on the fields digging for potatoes. It tells us that his father was very skilful and was probably an expert at digging because of the phrases “in rhythm” and “potato drills”. The word “digging” pops us again at the end of the third stanza as it is at the end of the second. The word seems to haunt or irritate the poet because he feels he is letting down his ancestors. In the fourth stanza the persona shows that he has technical expertise by naming the “lug” and the “shaft” which are parts of a spade.

This shows that the poet has grown up on the farm and with the equipment. The poet recreates the speed and precision of the digging with sharp cutting sounds such as “tall, tops” and “buried the bright. ” This is alliteration to recreate the expertise of the digging. We find out that the narrator is only a child at this time because he only plays with the potatoes. We can tell that the poem is about a place in Ireland because it says that they farm on a potato field which has for a long time been associated with potatoes.

There is an exclamation in the fifth stanza, which could be there because the poet feels he is letting down his predecessors. The line “Just like his old man” is a reminder that all his family stretching back a few generations were diggers. The poet seems to be using genuine admiration for his predecessors in their ability to work on the fields. This is the central point of the poem because it is a lot shorter than the other stanzas. The poet has admiration for his grandfather too, because he tells us how good he was at digging for peat.

The phrase “corked sloppily with paper” is a contrast to the precision of the digging his predecessors did and perhaps tells us why the poet did not want to dig because he felt he was not as good as them because he was not as precise. It says that his grandfather was very focused on digging because he would just stop to have a drink and then would be back digging straight away. The words “nicking” and “slicing” show once again the precision of the digging and also that his grandfather only wanted to get the best peat by digging lower. It also tells us that he took a lot of pride in his work.

The penultimate stanza is back to the present tense and back to where the poem began. There is alliteration and onomatopoeia in “squelch and slap”. It seems that certain sounds and sensations in this poem seem to be a memory triggers for the poet. The onomatopoeia adds extra effect to the description. The metaphor “through living roots awaken in my head” is telling us that the poet feels he is cutting through his family’s roots by not digging. He is upset and seems to be very depressed that he is not following the family tradition in the line, “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them. The last stanza starts off with the same lines as the first stanza as if to show at the poet is still in the same place still waiting to write his poem. This is called a circular structure and perhaps reminds us that the poem is actually about poetry rather than digging. The last line “I’ll dig with it” seems more optimistic as if he will dig things out in his mind and then write them down with the pen. He thinks that he is now just as valuable as his ancestors are and that he is not a traitor who broke his family roots.

The main theme of the poem is family traditions and carrying on the traditions. The poet has written down his problems to himself, which is like therapy to him because he is writing down what is bothering him. The poem ends with a sense of well being that his problems have been solved. The mood of the poem is very reflective and nostalgic because the poet is looking back to the past and thinking about his father and grandfather. The poem is very personal from the persona. He has a sense of guilt and failure because he thinks he is letting down his predecessors.

At the end of the poem he feels much better about himself and is feeling very positive. The poem is therapeutic for the persona because he is talking about his problems and getting them off his chest and then as soon as he has done that he immediately feels better about himself. The poet is trying to make you think about your own life and whether you have problems like this in your life like not living up to your parents’ expectations. Heaney gets you to think about what you want to do next in your life so it is a good poem for young people who still have the rest of their lives ahead of them.

The poem is successful because the structure works well with the time shift being matched with different stanzas. The poem is written in simple English, which would match the language for a person who has lived on a farm for the whole of his life. There is some rhyme at the beginning of the poem but then stops at the end of the second stanza. Rhyming in poems suggests order and once the rhyme stops it seems that there is something wrong like he could be in a state of confusion. He Was Analysis

We can tells the poet is American because the word labours is spelt “labors” which of course is the American spelling. Also he uses the word “fall” for autumn. The poem is about an old man who loved all nature and liked to do lots of gardening and helping plants to grow. The old man dies but then the plants and trees, which he has planted, outlive the man and have some of the man’s personality in them. The poem starts unusually because the title of the poem seems to be part of the first line and you read straight from the title onto the first line.

The title is in the past tense which implies that ‘he’ is probably dead now and that the poem is about memories. The first line has two colours in it, “brown” and “green”. These two colours are the colours of the countryside. They are describing the man so it could be saying that he is part of the landscape with the colours. The man could be brown because he could be tanned from being outside all the time or maybe because of his age and that he is getting on. His “green thumb” is like a metaphor when you have green fingers you are interested in gardening.

In the second line the poet is rekindling memories of this old man mainly by remembering the sounds like “screak”, which is very similar to Digging. This unusual word is probably a portmanteau and probably a mixture of screech and creak to describe the sound of his spade. There use of alliteration “chug, choke” describes to us the sound of the setting of the poem which we can guess to be an industrial setting because of the sounds. It describes the sound of the fertilizer cart as a “high madrigal wheeze” which are old Tudor songs, which were made up and were played with lots of notes together.

You can tell that the poet is a child at this point because he is up in the tree looking down on the old man. The word “dumb” is a contrast between the noise of the rest of the stanza and dumb means silent because the man spoke very little. The old man is probably an old relative of the poet because it says that the poet could hear the old man “all of my childhood long. ” The poet tells us that the man did not ever speak perhaps because he regrets never trying to have a conversation with him or talking with him.

When he tells you he dies there is no sense of tragedy probably because it seems like his work on bringing up plants is done and he is now ready to die. The “dead of fall” is a double meaning because the man could have died in autumn; he could have died when he was in his autumn years, which are generally considered to be the last years of your life and it is coming to the end of the year. “The drowsy underground” is probably the literal meaning, which means that he was buried underground in the soil which he loved so much. It gives you a peaceful sense of death; “drowsy” which tells you that the death was very natural.

It is also a non-religious view of death because the old man has worked on the land all of his life and so when he died he became part of the land himself. His death is very tranquil and peaceful. It seems as though the last task of his life was to plant the orchard of trees and it tells you that he put so much care into them before he died. It also tells you that all of the trees survived because of the hard work he put into them and his skill in gardening. The month of May has been personified as if it is a person who is nurturing the trees to grow.

The unusual phrase “aroused them all” gives an idea of fertility or sexuality. This is used because it describes the trees growing. The leaves have also been personified because they would not normally speak but now they are said to be “saying the land’s praise for the livening clay” which is sort of saying that they are thanking the clay for letting them grown on behalf of the land. It seems as if all of nature is speaking at this point because the old man did not speak and so it is as if they are saying what the old man did not. The last two lines are quite complicated.

The “found voice” is the new voice that has been created by the old man, which is spoken by all the trees that he has grown. The “buried hands” is probably a double meaning. It could mean that the old man’s hands are buried because he is dead or it could mean that the old man had to bury his hands in the soil to plant the trees in the first place. The poet is telling us that what the old man produced spoke for him metaphorically. The last line tells us that the voices from the trees rise up into the air because the sparrows are singing and spreading the voice of the old man.

It could also be a literal meaning because sparrows spread seeds everywhere when they eat seeds so they really are spreading out the old man’s voice because then there will be more sparrows living in the other trees. All these trees would be created and lots of homes for birds have been created just because of this old man. “Sparrowy” is a made up word which probably means that there are lots of sparrows in the air around the trees singing. At the end of the poem everything is spread out and you can imagine a picture of all birds around a tree flying out and singing.

A main theme of the poem is the metaphor that actions speak louder than words. This is because the man does not speak but the things that he has done like planting the trees have provided lots of homes for the sparrows so him planting the trees actually helped a lot of nature to carry on growing. The mood of the poem is very warm and is making it positive out of something that is not very warm at all. There is a little mood of guilt early on by it is gone by the end. The end rounds everything off and so there is no tension at the ending. There is a sense of achievement from the poet. The poem starts off noisy but then ends very tranquil.

The poem is successful because the structure is very good. All the stanzas are all the same length, which of course is a very traditional type of poem. There is rhyme in the poem in every stanza. The style of rhyme is quite unusual because it is a,b,c,b,c,a. This gives a sense of completion because the first and last lines rhyme so each stanza ends of nicely. Each stanza is also of a different subject with the first one while the old man is alive. The second one tells us how the old man died and the third stanza is about after he has died and what he has left in the world, almost like his legacy. Read also Still I rise Analysis essay

The structures of the poems are quite different. Digging has an unusual structure because at the beginning the tension builds up and then towards the end there is less tension and the ending is very relaxed. The beginning and the end of the poem is in the present tense and the middle is in the past relating back to twenty years earlier. At the beginning there is some rhyming in couplets but then it stops after the fourth line. It seems that when the tension builds up the poet starts to lose control and could be troubled by the memories. He Was has a much simpler structure than Digging. It is all written in past tense.

It has three stanzas of similar length. There is a strict rhyme scheme in every stanza, which is: a, b, c, b, c, a. this is unusual because it is not usual to have the first and last lines to rhyme. This gives a sense of completion and a circular effect. This can also be linked to the natural world and the seasons of the year. There is also a slight contrast in the themes of the two poems with Digging being about the poet trying to justify his life and thinking about the past. He Was is about the poet trying to remember and understand someone who is now dead but who used to be very close to the poet when he was a child.

There are also some similarities in themes because both poets feel guilty and are trying to heal themselves through writing the poem like therapy. Digging is set in Ireland, which is a much poorer country than the USA where He Was is set. The work in Ireland is much harder and is very physical. This is a stark contrast to the USA, which has very fertile ground with an ideal climate to grow crops. They also have machines so it is not as hard working on the fields. This difference in the settings also matches the difference in the language of the two.

Digging has more straightforward and plain language than He Was, which has richer language with more metaphors and imagery. There are also several similarities between the two poems. They are both remembering agricultural family members who were both old men. They are retrospective in that they both look back to the past and think about their memories of the two old men. Both poets seem to want to belong to their respective family with Heaney feeling left out because he does not dig potatoes and Wilbur feeling guilty that he did not once try to engage in conversation with the old man.

Both poems use onomatopoeia and alliteration to great effect describing the sounds and smells which trigger the memories. They are both personal and about the poets own lives so they are autobiographical. I prefer the Heaney poem because the poet is trying to make you think about your own life and whether you have problems like this in your life like not living up to your parents’ expectations. Heaney gets you to think about what you want to do next in your life so it is a good poem for young people who still have the rest of their lives ahead of them.

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Analysis of Seamus Heaney Poem Digging. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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