How does Seamus Heaney reveal his culture in 'Digging' and 'Follower'?

Categories: Digging Poetry

Seamus Heaney was born in Northern Ireland in 1939 to a working class family. Being the eldest of nine siblings wasn’t easy yet Heaney’s intelligence was highlighted when he won a scholarship to a catholic school at the tender age of twelve. He had an agricultural background and was raised on the family farm where he stood proud of his hard working ancestors and their skills.

After studying Heaney’s first pair of poems ‘Digging’ and ‘Follower’ I can especially relate to the strong family values Heaney displays, yet an important part of the Irish tradition is for a father to pass on his business or trade down to the eldest son.

We see how Heaney would feel pressurised; indeed he would have a lot to live up to judging by that exposed in his poetry. It is well known that most Irishmen are working class and Ireland has a very strong pub culture; from this fact stems many stereotypes.

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Through his poetry Heaney attempts to challenge the discrimination that is regularly shown towards Irish farmers. We see even today many frequently told jokes involve the Irish man as the fool; it’s the Irish farmer that is especially misinterpreted, yet Heaney gives us a fair insight into the life of his family and their farming profession; he tells readers of the immense skill needed to farm well and the capability of an Irish farmer. He is therefore challenging the tradition yet damaging the stereotype.

Firstly we see how ‘Digging’ has both a metaphorical and literal meaning to it.

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The literal meaning is that his father and grandfather are farmers, the poem talks about his family ‘Digging’ and working on the farm. Onwards from this the metaphorical meaning is that Seamus Heaney himself is ‘Digging’ into his past and background, which indeed is farming. Hence the title is rather effective. ‘Digging’ is about Heaney breaking away from the family tradition and becoming a poet thus it is written in an untraditional way.

In ‘Digging’ Heaney begins his poem in the present tense he is describing what he is doing and his surroundings at the time of writing before he takes a step back in time, reminiscing and evaluating his thought process as his memories link causing him to remember the past and the skills of his father and grandfather. He is sat by his window to write the poem and therefore fulfilling his passion as a poet; he describes seeing his elderly father straining amongst the flowerbeds, then goes into the past and reminisces again about his father and how he would farm so well. He writes of the times when he and his father would work together picking potatoes on the farm. Further on Heaney delves deeper into his family history, he moves on from his father and begins to speak of his grandfather linking the two together via their epic skills. He writes

“By God, the old man could handle a spade

Just like his old man.”

Heaney uses his chain of thoughts in a very orderly way and describes the potato picking days from his past, he goes into detail about how the potatoes smelt and the sound of the ‘soggy peat’. He then ends with a stanza much like his first, yet within this stanza we see how he realises that his tool is not that of a farmer but is a pen and his skill is to write. The final line, however, is set in the future tense to emphasise Heaney’s determination – “I’ll dig with it.”

In contrast ‘Follower’ is a very different poem. Here, Seamus Heaney writes about his days on the farm from the perspective of being a young boy. He sees his father working on a horse and plough as he recollects upon how he looked up to his father and saw him as a great role-model, indeed, as a child Heaney himself wanted to become a farmer. Thus the poem is, unlike ‘Digging’ written in a traditional way. Following in his fathers footsteps and traipsing around the farm Heaney would make a nuisance of himself. The poem is ended with a twist as Heaney states that the tables have turned as considering the present Seamus Heaney feels his father is stumbling behind him. This is reflected when he states:

“It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me and will not go away.”

Like the general theme in ‘Digging’ these two lines have both a literal and metaphorical meaning, the literal is that his father is now and old man and is physically stumbling behind him and becoming a nuisance. The hidden metaphorical meaning is one that highlights the shame he feels, the way in which his father is ‘stumbling’ behind him reflects how the memories of breaking the family tradition haunt him still and how his father is now a burden through the regret he feels.

“Digging” starts by setting the scene with a two line stanza:

“Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests: snug as a gun”

The poet is sitting, watching and listening whilst absorbing his surroundings. We see how he is in deep thought as the second line simile reveals that although the pen is sitting comfortably it is potentially enormously powerful. He refers to his pen as ‘squat’ I believe this is ironic as the burden of breaking a tradition and risking further collapsing the Irish stereotype is not light at all in fact it is a heavy burden to handle.

Heaney lets his pen rest as he observes his father out of the window this creates an opposing mood to the following phrase “snug as a gun” this truly convinces the reader of its power. I believe that through this he is showing us that he feels he must detach himself as a writer from his family in order to view his relationships from a realistic perspective; he must distance himself from the feelings he has towards his family in order to evaluate fairly and make things less personal to him and more of an all round view upon the farming tradition.

In the next stanza we are shown how ‘Digging’ is an auditory poem:

“…a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravely ground:”

This is what Heaney is hearing as he looks out of his window. The fact he uses sounds brings him poem to life more and makes everything more realistic. Heaney then writes

“My father, digging. I look down”

I believe that this metaphor could symbolise the fact that Heaney is higher is status than his father; Heaney is a middle-class poet whereas his father is a working class farmer. In stanza four of ‘Digging’ it says:

“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”

I believe that the first two lines convey to us that the spade is just as comfortable for his father as then pen is for him. On the next line the words ‘rooted’, ‘out’ and ‘tops’ are examples of assonance whereas ‘buried’ and ‘bright’ are both alliteration these two literacy devises together have an astonishing appeal adding poetic structure to the piece. In the sixth stanza Heaney says:

“Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away”

He is talking about his grandfather the way he says he “fell to” gives us the image of a robot like character programmed into doing his work only. It seems that he has no time for his grandson and although he is working hard and is focused this also is a reflection of their poor relationship and highlights the lack of intimacy between the two. The fact that Heaney carried his grandfather milk shows that the children were encouraged to partake in family work and start their farming at a young age.

Heaney praises and celebrates his fathers farming skills throughout his work and the relaxed movements and smooth rhythm that is described within Heaney’s poetry becomes a great reflection upon the poetic technique of him as a writer showing that though his father has rhythmic physicality he himself can create a great poetic flow:

“Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.”

Through these lines we see Heaney recreating the movement and allowing us to absorb the precise handling and controlled rhythm farming requires. Also the way the poet uses the title of the poem in a short sentence is very effective because it reinforces and reminds us of the key ideas Heaney wishes to highlight within this particular poem.

The final two stanzas’ I believe are crucial to the success of the poem as a whole. Heaney firstly says:

“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat…”

This again is a reflection of the auditory aspect of the poem. We see here how the smells of Irish farming are also embedded in Heaney’s memory; the onomatopoeia and alliteration used here makes his senses visual for the reader to interpret. Heaney goes on to state:

“Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them”

My interpretation of this phrase would suggest the harsh reality that he himself is attached from the roots of his family tree. We see that though he admires his family greatly he hasn’t got the drive, the skill or the ambition to continue and repeat their fine work. The fact Heaney doesn’t have the skill of a farmer is reflected when he states “But I have no spade” this translates to tell the reader that he isn’t at all like his family members and shows us that he is distancing himself from them. The poem finally ends with a stanza much like the first:

“Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it”

It is clearly noticeable that the poet has not used any reference to a gun here and we see he has replaced the gun with a tool so he may dig. I believe that when he says he will ‘dig’ with his pen he is talking about digging into his family history and glorifying his ancestors by continuing their tradition in his own way. I believe that the fact the last line in set in the future tense emphasizes Heaney’s determination. I also think the ending of this poem concludes some sort of temporary resolution yet we know the poet is not finished; there is more that Heaney feels must be said in order to settle his troubled mind and erase the stereotype. This brings us onto follower…

‘Follower’ being the title of this poem is in itself slightly ironic as he is writing of how he used to be a follower to his father as a child, traipsing around the farm; yet there is the reality that now he knows he cannot follow his father in the family tradition. Throughout this poem the skill and precision of Heaney’s father is stressed. He starts stanza two by calling his father “An expert.” This is an extremely short sentence with no verbs which conveys the feeling that there is no dispute about Heaney’s appraisal of his father; I believe it is an accurate opinion of the man’s ability and precision.

The phrase “Single pluck” proves his father can turn a horse and plough around effortlessly this conveys the flawlessness he has achieved over time. In the next stanza “Narrowed and angled” is used to again describe the precise technique his father uses. The second half of the poem which consists of three stanzas’, talks about Heaney as a child and how he acted rather than about his father and the skills he had. The starts of these three stanzas’ I believe are very significant…”I stumbled” is the first, followed by “I wanted” and finally “I was a nuisance”. I think that these truly prove to the reader Heaney’s acceptance of his failure as a child and his failure as a farmer.

Within the fourth stanza of “Follower” Heaney mention’s “the polished sod” this again describes how neat his father was by allowing us to create a picture of how exact and perfect the farmland was; the term ‘sod’ means a surface covered with grass or turf it also can be a section cut or torn from the surface of grassland, containing the matted roots of grass we imagine this to be tatty and not at all as Heaney describes it; this reflects upon how his father was such a credible craftsman, it seems like he could perfect any land. The father son relationship is also reflected within ‘Follower’:

“Sometimes he rode me on his back,

Dipping and rising to his plod.”

We know that Heaney’s father is a man of strength and power but here we see that he is also a man with love for his dear son. Their loving relationship is prominent through the way he treats his son. These two lines show readers that they both enjoyed being together on the farm and also that Heaney’s father showed sheer enjoyment when introducing his eldest son to a life of farming and to the traditional trade itself. Although Heaney was a nuisance his father would encourage him and help him along. We see how Heaney is filled with idolisation towards his heroic father, he says:

“I wanted to grow and plough,

To close one eye, stiffen my arm.”

This symbolizes his admiration and shows us that Heaney as a child saw farming as a way of emulating his father’s actions. I as a reader can understand what an immense opportunity farming could have been for Heaney it was a chance for him to live up to his fathers achievements and continue to accomplish greatness in the trade himself; therefore glorifying the family name.

Through studying this poem I can see how the poetry itself is much more flexible than that within ‘Digging’. I can see how he has eased up and feels he can be more personal with the way he writes he is talking about himself and his father directly throughout showing to me as a reader that he is calmer and no longer has so many serious and forceful points he must portray to us; his mind seems more settled. He shows acceptance of his fathers work and growing composure which is just slightly shattered as he shows again his frustration and regret at the end of the poem.

As shown, Heaney uses many poetic techniques within his work , often he uses imagery; this literacy devise is a great tool that brings his work to life creating a sense of immediacy that produces vivid pictures in our minds making me as a reader feel involved and captured within the moment. Within ‘Digging’ images of a ‘man-machine’ are used to glorify and intensify the pictures we see when imagining Heaney’s ancestors whereas ‘Follower’ uses nautical imagery, this is imagery that is linked to ships and boats.

We are given the image of a man-machine in ‘Digging’ through the powerful, masculine verbs Heaney uses he says rhythmic words such as ‘straining’ and ‘stooping’ they are monotonous, repetitive and reveal the strenuous nature of pastoral work illustrating the power his father and fathers father wielded with their shovel and sweat.

“Twenty years away”

This is a phrase that reinforces the repetitive nature of the physical labour it lets us know that farming is a job for life. Heaney visualises his father in his prime to place emphasize upon the power he had. The technical terms used like ‘lug’, ‘shaft’ and ‘levered’ confirm the machine image. With machine-like accuracy

“He rooted out the tall tops, buried the bright edged deep”

The alliteration used here enhances the reader’s visual imagery producing a picture of experience and excellence.

We see further on how the image of a man-machine is reinforced as Heaney speaks of his grandfather, he says:

“Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf.”

This shows us that the generations of skill have been passed down through the family as has the ancient tradition; we see how Heaney’s grandfather truly knew his craft. Great strength and power is exposed when reading these lines.

Follower immediately illuminates the agricultural aspect of Ireland; we see this is the first line where he says his father “worked with a horse-plough” to reinforce the Irish cultivation Heaney uses technical terms such as ‘wing’, ‘sock’ and ‘headrig’ this shows his involvement in the farming tradition and his up bringing is reflected as we see he has come to learn the language of a true farmer.

We came to realise that instead of the man machine images that are used in ‘Digging’ Heaney uses nautical references to create imagery within ‘Follower’; the nautical aspect is used to interpret the flow of his fathers work which works immensely well. The first of the nautical implications is when Heaney speaks of his father saying:

“His shoulders globed like a full sail strung”

This simile is used to show the immense strength and great power within his father’s masculine physique; it epically suggests that there are definite requirements and necessities needed to be as good a farmer as Heaney’s father indeed is. I also believe that the word ‘Globed’ is especially used as it has a hidden meaning I believe it suggests that Heaney thinks the world of his father and that it is a reflection of his father’s Godly ambience. The third line of the second stanza states that:

“The sod rolled over without breaking”

This nautical reference translates to the fact that as the earth turned it looked like a wave breaking in the sea.

“Mapping the furrow exactly”

This is a navigational image, the use of the word exactly reveals that his father does the work precisely and perfectly emphasizing upon his experience and skill showing he has been working the land for a long time.

Heaney also says:

“I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake”

Again this is said nautically when referring to his father this reference is meaning that he

Was like a ships trail; his father indeed being the ship itself. This reference could also symbolise an image of the ploughman’s heavy boots, the carefully ploughed furrow and the child’s clumsy enthusiasm.

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How does Seamus Heaney reveal his culture in 'Digging' and 'Follower'?. (2017, Sep 20). Retrieved from

How does Seamus Heaney reveal his culture in 'Digging' and 'Follower'?

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