Digging, by Seamus Heaney is a poem about a young man who gets criticised for choosing a line of work, which is not necessarily ordinary or traditional to his family, and who finally decides that his idea of real work is writing, not physical labour. The poet reminisces about the men in his family and his memories of how hard they worked and passed down their skills from generation to generation.
Isolation and separation is one of the first themes introduced to the reader in ‘Digging’, as the reader can immediately form a picture of the poet sitting at his writing desk while looking down at his father digging and working in the garden, with a glass pane separating them (stanza 2). This barrier between the poet and his father leads to the simile “snug as a gun”, from which the reader can derive that the poet is comparing his pen to a weapon with which the poet intends to protect himself from criticisms about his line of work and untraditional choice.
Throughout the first and last stanzas of ‘Digging’, the poet comes to terms with issues of critique. The changes between the first and last stanza reveal that the poet has found a solution, and come to terms with his fate. The poet comes to realize that he may not ever be as skilled as the men in his family setting an example to him by working hard and labouring physically, but that he has other precious skills like writing, with which he can earn an honest living and recreate his forbearers’ lifestyles.
The reader is introduced to the idea that the poet feels superior to the manual work his father subjects himself to and wants to get away from the lifestyle physical labour offers. The poet “looks down” at his father’s “straining rump” and this shows that the poet is literally elevated in his position, and the reader gets the sense that the poet feels somehow superior to manual work and isn’t comfortable with the idea of making his living in a similar way to his father’s.
The poet explains his father’s skills intensively, and throughout the poem (stanza 4-7), the poet introduces the theme of time where the reader is provided with a flashback of the poet’s grandfather, a potato farmer, with the same skills, from which the poet’s father presumably learnt his gardening and farming skills. The paradox, “coarse boot nestled” gives the reader an idea of the physicality of the digging and labour, as well as the contrasting love of work combined with expert skill.
The poet takes the reader back in time to show that working with the land has always been a proud tradition in his family. The poet has broken the chain by choosing a different career in the form of writing. The poet conveys the idea that his family is proud of their achievements and follows traditions. In the line “My grandfather could cut more turf in a day than any other man on Toner’s bog,” the poet conveys the message that the achievements his family is proud of are measured by the ability to farm and work the land skilfully, not necessarily by the ability to write. In the second last stanza the difficulties the poet’s wish to write are revealed. The words “the curt cuts through living roots” are sharp words used as a metaphor to explain the instant where the poet cuts his ties with his family’s traditional ideas of earning a living.
Comparing the line “as snug as a gun” in the beginning of the poem to “I’ll dig with it”, gives the reader a realization that the poet has made up his mind and chosen to follow the path he wants to take. The poet realizes that his skill with a pen is similar to that of his father and grandfathers’ farming skills and that he can carry his love for the earth through his writing.
Similar to the poet’s grandfather, “digging down for the good turf,” the poet will dig down for the good skills and ideas that make his poetry a true work of art.