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Seamus Heaney Digging

Seamus Heaney Digging

Have you ever been inspired by the way someone works? Maybe a parent, a teacher, a doctor, or your favorite athlete? In the poem “Digging,” the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney (1939‐2013), expresses admiration for the methodical way his father and grandfather worked as farmers in County Derry, Northern Ireland. While his ancestors did hardworking manual labor, planting, and digging, Heaney's work is to dig into the meaning of work and life through poetry.

Seamus Heaney Digging, Spade, StudySmarterFig. 1 - In the poem, Heaney describes his father and his grandfather's skill working with a spade. A spade is a shovel-like tool with a flat edge used for digging.

“Digging” Poem Information Overview
Poet:Seamus Heaney (1939‐2013)
Year published: 1966 in Death of a Naturalist
Type of poem: Narrative poem
Tone: Serious and reflective
Literary/ poetic devices: Metaphor, repetition, sibilance, alliteration, and imagery
Themes:work, labor, craft, family ancestry, and identity

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney: Context

“Digging” (1966) is a poem by the famous Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939‐2013). “Digging” is the opening poem of Seamus Heaney's critically acclaimed first poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966). Death of a Naturalist focuses on the relationship between humans and nature, drawing from Heaney's rural upbringing.

Seamus Heaney grew up in a family of rural farmers in Northern Ireland. His agricultural upbringing greatly influenced his poetry. Heaney wrote “Digging” in the summer of 1964 as a testament to the skill of his father's and grandfather's farming, which he relates to the work required for writing poetry.

Seamus Heaney Digging, Potatoes, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Potatoes are one of the most popular crops grown in Northern Ireland.

In the poem, Heaney describes how his father and grandfather planted and harvested potatoes. He mentions the enjoyment of the cool feeling of potatoes that come straight from the ground to suggest the reward or cool relief from the hard work of farming.

Heaney was writing during a historical time of building tensions in Ireland. The Troubles, also known as the Northern Ireland conflict, began in the late 1960s. Some of the tension brewing in Heaney's homeland can be felt in the poem “Digging.” Heaney's poem also serves as a testament to the Irish people's deep connection to their land.

The Troubles, or the Northern Ireland conflict, is a term used for the 30-year war in Northern Ireland that spanned from the late 1960s until 1998. The conflict developed between Catholic nationalists who wanted to leave the United Kingdom and Protestant unionists who wanted to stay a part of the UK. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in this violent conflict.

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney: Poem

In the opening of the poem “Digging,” the speaker, Heaney, is about to begin writing and envisions his father tending to the land.

Line“Digging” by Seamus HeaneyNotes
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
1.2. squat: stubby, short
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
3. rasping: scraping, grating4. spade: digging tool5.
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
6.7.8. potato drills: shallow holes for potato seeds9.
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.
10. lug: projection of an object11. levered: pulled12. 13.14.
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.
17.18. Toner's bog: dense wetland near Heaney's home19.20. Corked: closed, sealed21.22. Heaving sods: pulling/lifting turf23.24.
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.
25. mould: loose soil squelch: sucking sound of moving in mud26. peat: dark brown decayed vegetation27.28.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney: Analysis of Form

“Digging” is a 31-line narrative poem written in eight stanzas of varying lengths.

A narrative poem is a poem that tells a story with an identifiable plot and characters.

Narrative poems focus on plot or the sequence of related events, while lyric poems focus on conveying strong emotions.

While “Digging” may not be a traditional long narrative poem with a set rhyme scheme and fully developed characters, it clearly tells the story of Heaney's writing process and inspiration. At the start of the poem, the poet is holding the pen. He is ready to write, yet searches for what to write about. Heaney recalls the work of his father and his grandfather in the fields of Northern Ireland. Recalling where he is from is his inspiration and impetus for his writing.

Heaney develops the characters of his father and grandfather by describing their actions and the way he witnesses them work. The poet describes his father's precise, machinelike methodicalness as he maneuvers a spade. He notes that his grandfather had the same capability. His grandfather quickly downs a glass of milk and goes right back to neatly slicing sections of turf, digging, and throwing them over his shoulder to get to the good soil.

Both Heaney’s father and grandfather are characterized by their skill and hardworking nature. Heaney compares this to the required skill and work ethic required to write poetry.

Seamus Heaney Digging, Man writing, StudySmarterFig. 3 - By the end of the poem, Heaney has the firm resolution to use his pen as a tool to “dig” (31) and honor his ancestors by uncovering memories and ideas through his writing.

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney: Rhyme Scheme and Meter

The poem “Digging” has no set rhyme scheme or meter. However, it does feature end rhymes and iambic meter in the first two lines of the poem:

“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” (1-2)

Heaney uses the slant rhymes “thumb” and “gun” to compare the ideas of a resting gun in a hand to the resting pen in the poet's hand. The iambic tetrameter (eight-syllable lines with an alternating pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables) gives the start of the poem a consistent, fast-paced rhythm. This builds tension to complement the intense imagery of the gun with a finger on the trigger.

The tightly ordered meter and same-length lines also evoke the snugness of the pen in the poet's hand. The lines and the words fit together neatly and compactly.

The back and forth, repetitive quality of the alternating unstressed and stressed syllables mimics the repetitive, back and forth motion of digging that Heaney describes. However, the poem slips into a freer rhythm and verse as it progresses. This reflects the poet’s tension being released as he is carried away by past memories and overflowed with ideas for his poetry.

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney: Literary Devices

“Digging” opens with an intriguing metaphor comparing a poet’s small pen to a gun and a farmer’s spade. Seamus Heaney ties his poetic story together through this extended metaphor, as well as other literary devices such as repetition, sibilance, alliteration, and imagery.

Metaphor and Repetition

The poem opens with a metaphor, comparing the pen resting between the poet's fingers to a gun. This metaphor lends force and builds tension at the outset of the poem by inciting action.

Although the act of writing is often viewed as an intellectual pursuit rather than a physical one, Heaney paints his writing process with an action-movie-like opening. He suggests the unseen action, tension, and impetus that goes on in a writer’s mind. The poet lends motion and physicality to his description of the writing process at the outset of the poem to preface its connection to the physical labor of his farming ancestors.

A metaphor is a figurative comparison that states that one thing is another thing to suggest similar characteristics between the two.

“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” (1-2)

This metaphor is an extended metaphor, which carries into the end of the poem. The poet compares his ancestor's digging tool, the spade, to his pen. The pen is the poet's tool, which is used to “dig” for poetic inspiration and ideas.

“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.” (28-31)

The repetition of the words “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests” at the beginning and end of the poem frames the story with tension and action. The poem opens as Heaney is sitting with the pen in his hand and the impulse to write. The poem ends with his resolution to “dig” into his past and take off writing with a strong conviction in the purpose of his work.

Repetition is the use of a word or phrase multiple times in speech or writing.

Heaney frequently repeats the words “dig” and “digging” to emphasize the idea of searching and uncovering with skill and effort. As his father and grandfather carefully dug to harvest and plant crops, Heaney methodically digs to search for the words to represent life experiences through poetry. The repetition of the word “digging” also reinforces the hardworking nature of Heaney's ancestors. They do their work well and almost mechanically, seeming never to complain or tire of this physically demanding and strenuous work.

Alliteration and Sibilance

The poem “Digging” uses sound-related literary devices to emphasize the effort and repetitive sound of digging. Heaney uses sibilance to mimic the “rasping” sound of the spade sinking into the dirt. The poet uses alliteration in the phrases “spade sink” and “gravelly ground” to evoke the impact of the spade being pushed deeper into the soil in a repetitive fashion.

Sibilance is the repetition of the “S” sound in nearby words or phrases, creating a hissing or whispering effect.

Alliteration is the repetition of initial sounds at the beginning of consecutive or nearby words.

“Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down” (3-5)

Seamus Heaney uses alliteration in numerous places throughout the poem. Can you identify other instances where he uses it? What effect do you think it has on the reading of the poem?


Seamus Heaney evokes the imagery of the Northern Irish potato farms through visuals, sound, and smell. He paints an immersive, realistic picture of a farmer's gritty work in the fields. The smell of the loose soil, the sound of the spade making suction noises in the mud, and the image of the soggy ground and roots come together to evoke the feeling of being immersed in the earth. Although the image is not glorious, Heaney remembers it fondly as his ancestors tended to and fed their families off this land with hard work, skill, and determination. The land is a part of the family identity.

Imagery is descriptive language used to appeal to the reader’s senses.

“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.” (25-27)

Seamus Heaney Digging, Potato Field, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Although there is a serene, bucolic feel atmosphere with farming, Heaney emphasizes both the beauty in order and the gritty, demanding nature of farm work.

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney: Themes

The poem “Digging” focuses on the themes of work, labor, craft, family ancestry, and identity.

Work, Labor, and Craft

Heaney's poem is built on the idea of the value of work and labor. The poet admires his father and grandfather's hard work in the fields. He emphasizes their skill and mastery in digging and planting with mechanical precision. Heaney stresses that there is as much skill in manual labor as there is in intellectual labor. The farmer's spade is equated to the poet's pen, as one digs for good soil and the other digs for good ideas.

Heaney argues that poetry is a tangible craft, just as farming is. Though the labor of crafting a poem is not as physically strenuous as the labor of farming, both require tools, hard work, impetus, and digging.

In the first stanza, the poet compares his pen to a resting gun. This description presents the idea of inaction with tension building towards the action of writing. In the last stanza of the poem, the pen is again depicted as resting in the poet’s hand. However, it is no longer a weapon, but rather a tool. Heaney decides that even though he does not have a spade, nor a conventional path to follow, he will use his pen as his tool and dig to find his path and poetic inspiration as his ancestor’s dug to uncover good soil.

Family Ancestry and Identity

In the poem "Digging," family ancestry and identity are tied to work and the land. The poem tells the story of three generations. Heaney's father worked skillfully in the fields, just as he had learned from his father. Heaney breaks this generational chain by choosing to be a poet. However, the content of his poetry and the nature in which he works are still bound to the influence of his homeland and his family.

The content of Heaney’s poetry pays homage to his homeland of Northern Ireland through the imagery of his family’s integrated life with the land. The farmers lived and fed their families off of the rural land, and Heaney writes to capture its essence and to share its significance.

The poet notes that his father could maneuver a spade just as skillfully as his grandfather could. This methodical knack for tending to the land appears to be something that is learned and passed down through the generations. Although Heaney is not continuing his family’s work of farming, he has acquired his ancestor’s passed down appreciation for nature and for hard work. This appreciation and awareness characterize Heaney’s poetry, and it serves to connect him to his ancestral roots and heritage.

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney: Tone

The tone of the poem “Digging” is serious and reflective. Seamus Heaney describes his father and grandfather seriously and straightforwardly through descriptions of their actions. He reflects on the precision and skill required in his ancestors' manual labor and how it compares to his work as a writer. This is a minor section and can be moved to the end. JC

“Digging” - Key takeaways

  • “Digging” (1966) is a poem written by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
  • “Digging” is the first poem in Heaney's popular poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966).
  • The tone of the poem “Digging” is serious and reflective.
  • “Digging” uses literary and poetic devices such as metaphor, repetition, sibilance, alliteration, and imagery.
  • The key themes of the poem are work, labor, craft, family ancestry, and identity.

Frequently Asked Questions about Seamus Heaney Digging

The themes of "Digging" by Seamus Heaney include work, labor, craft, family ancestry, and identity.

"Digging" by Seamus Heaney is about the poet's ancestors and their skillful, hard work as potato farmers. Heaney compares the labor of a farmer to the labor of a poet.

Digging in the poem symbolizes hard work, search, and discovery. While Heaney's ancestors dug for good soil, Heaney "digs" to uncover poetic inspiration and ideas. 

Seamus Heaney wrote "Digging" to express admiration for the methodical way his father and grandfather worked as farmers in County Derry, Northern Ireland. He also wrote the poem to explore how his ancestry inspires his work as a poet. 

"Digging" by Seamus Heaney was written in the summer of 1964. It was first published in Heaney's 1966 poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist

Final Seamus Heaney Digging Quiz


Who wrote the poem "Digging"?

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Seamus Heaney 

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Where is the speaker of the poem from? 

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Northern Ireland

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What is a spade?

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A shovellike tool with a flat edge used for digging. 

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What is the title of the poetry collection "Digging" is part of? 

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Death of a Naturalist

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What type of poem is "Digging"? 

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Narrative poem 

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What is the tone of "Digging"?

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Serious and reflective

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Which of the following is not a theme found in the poem? 

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What crop is farmed in the poem "Digging"? 

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"Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun." is an example of which literary device? 

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“Gravelly ground” is an example of what literary device?

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What is sibilance? 

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The repetition of the “S” sound in nearby words or phrases, creating a hissing or whispering effect.

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Who are the people mentioned in the poem "Digging"? 

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The speaker's father and grandfather.

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