I recently visited the fabulous new Seamus Heaney Homeplace in the village of Bellaghy in Ireland. There, along with all my tour group, I absolutely fell in love with Heaney. He was a stunning poet and an incredibly nice man. The new centre is superb – interactive and informative, it brings his works alive for the visitor. In the village is a wonderful new statue, depicting a man digging peat. It is an illustration of one of Heaney’s most famous poems:
Digging by Seamus Heaney
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.
The poem opens with the poet at his desk, pen poised in his hand. But he is distracted by the sound of his father’s digging and looks out the window to watch. The sound and the sight take him back through the years, to a memory of his grandfather at work digging peat at Toner’s Bog (which I visited with my tour group). As a young boy, the poet took his grandfather milk in a bottle. Then Heaney comes back suddenly to the present, at first seeming to regret that he would not be following in that family digging tradition. Until he realises that the pen is just another kind of tool, one that can also ‘dig’ – it can dig into memories, into the subconscious, it can cut and lift just like a spade. Heaney uses the unusual words “snug as a gun”, making his readers aware that a pen can be a weapon (bringing to mind the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’). Both require some sort of trigger, and his father’s digging is in this case the trigger for his writing this poem.
Heaney makes us very aware of sounds and smells – clean, rasping, gravelly, squelch, slap, cool hardness, etc. It’s a poem that evokes the hard reality of nature, of men forcing food and material for warmth from the deep soil. As a poet he must also dig deep, to heave up the right words and images from the depths of his mind. He shows an intimate knowledge of farming life – the “lug” of the spade is the top of its blade, the “drill” is an evenly spaced row of planted potatoes. He knows how a spade is held and handled.
It is also a poem about love and pride in one’s family. The Heaney men are hard-working, they are good at what they do. There are no long breaks – just a quick drink of milk, then back to work. The line “By God, the old man could handle a spade” captures this love and pride so immediately.
Listen to gorgeous Heaney himself read the poem:
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Susannah Fullerton: Seamus Heaney is born
Susannah Fullerton: Death of a Naturalist is first published
Susannah Fullerton: Seamus Heaney & Digging
Susannah Fullerton: Seamus Heaney & Mid-Term Break
Susannah Fullerton: Seamus Heaney is awarded the Nobel Prize
Susannah Fullerton: Seamus Heaney dies
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1995
Poetry Foundation: Seamus Heaney
Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney