Digging Out a Future
Updated: Sep 28, 2019
A Tribute to Seamus Heaney
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I’m cultured enough to read poetry in my spare time.
It’s not my primary source of entertainment by any means (or even secondary, tertiary...you get the idea). But if there’s one thing I miss about high school, it’s reading and analysing poems. There was no wrong answer because poetry means something different to everyone, that’s the whole point. One poem that did strike me and that I do still think about from time to time is ‘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.
Seamus Heaney was born into a large, farming family in County Derry. Academically gifted, he was awarded a scholarship to St Columb’s College, Derry, then going on to study at Queen’s University, Belfast. His poetry received critical acclaim, going on to win him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, amongst several other awards.
His breakthrough collection, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ was the anthology my class was given to study as part of our English Literature GCSE coursework. I had heard of Heaney, but had never paid much attention to the passing mentions my granny gave him.
The title poem of this collection, we were taught, was an analogy for coming of age, of growing up and no longer admiring the natural world, but learning to fear it. That’s what I wrote in my essays of course, but I was more inclined to believe that Heaney just had a really bad experience with some frogspawn one day and used his literary skill to paint an impressively detailed image of it. Heaney was, after all,
known as the ‘farmers poet’, and the sense of realism we get from this poem doesn’t necessarily, in my opinion, portray his disgust at nature, but rather his no-frills approach to describing life in the countryside. This was a breath of fresh air for me, any poems I had been introduced to previously were full of airy-fairy language, chocked full of metaphors and references that meant very little to me. They weren’t written for normal people, but here was Heaney, speaking in plain, simple terms, and painting colourful pictures with them all the same.
‘Digging’ was the poem that really gave me that sense of vivid imagery that Heaney, as I was learning, was known for. In the poem, he describes the hard work of his father and grandfather, who toiled the land but also notes the differences between these men and himself. His descriptions almost mirror those that any of us with parents who grew up in countryside or farming environments will have heard a thousand times, about what hard work it was and how unforgiving the land could be.
Like Heaney, I myself, ‘have no spade to follow men like them’. Hearing stories of how hard my ancestors worked the land in order to provide for their families, makes me stop and appreciate how lucky I am. I didn’t have to tend to livestock before school in the morning, or help with the harvest, carry peat from the bog or help deliver calves. I don’t have to grow my own vegetables or rear my own animals to put food on the table, but only a generation ago, it was the norm.
Heaney’s poem reveals how times were changing, he had the choice to use his pen, rather than a spade, to carve out a life for himself, as I also have that same choice. Heaney’s not ashamed of his roots or the sacrifices made by those before him, vowing to ‘dig’ with his pen, in much the same way that his forefathers dug the land. And dig, he surely did. He dug out Ireland’s not so distant history,
telling the stories of those who lived as he had done. He brought Ireland’s rural culture to the forefront of the well-to-do, literary circles, and dug out a place for himself in scholarly history.
That to me sounds like a pretty good harvest.