At a Potato Digging
by Michael Woods
This is a poem concerned with Irish history. Looming over the scene depicted is the spectre of the potato famine that afflicted Ireland from 1845-49. The potato crop, staple for the Irish, failed, and with cataclysmic results. About half the population of three million died, while a million people emigrated – many to America.
The first section of the poem is written in alternately rhymed quatrains that describe a rural scene of potato digging that is clearly in progress much later than a similar scene around the time of the famine. Heaney describes a “mechanical digger” that “wrecks the drill”. Already we ain the machine age and there is a sense that it is destructive. Humans are presented as insects who “swarm in behind”, having to “stoop to fill / Wicker creels”. People seem obeisant to the mechanical digger and their baskets are the traditional containers for the crop, linking them with the potato diggers of the past. An ominous atmosphere is established - inhospitable weather makes “Fingers go dead in the cold”.
Having likened the potato gatherers to insects, Heaney goes on in stanza two to say they are “Like crows attacking crow-black fields”. This bleak image conjures the idea of carrion feeders as well as suggesting something of an omen. There is also nothing exceedingly organised about the operation as the people are in a “higgledy line”. This idea is emphasised through Heaney’s choice of the military word “ranks” premodified by the adjective “ragged”. The work is back breaking and it is clear that it is unremitting because the workers may only “stand / Tall for a moment but soon stumble back / to fish a new load from the crumbled surf” (lines 8-10). Their subservience to machine, soil and crop is made clear through further details such as “Heads bow, trunks bend, hands fumble…” (line 11). Their activity is described as “Processional stooping” (line 12) which conveys their numbers but also the idea that they are in a procession. This has both a religious connotation and one that is purely mortal. The resonance of the famine past gives us a sense that there is a queue for death being formed. The fact that this is presented as happening “mindlessly as autumn” is both potentially pejorative and indicative of the idea that there is an unquestioning continuance of this activity. The season of autumn is obviously that of harvest but is also the time of year when trees drop their leaves. So, there is a complexity of ideas being communicated here, particularly when one remembers the historical background relating to the potato and its crucial significance to Irish life. The crop being gathered in the poem’s present is garnered with the spectre of the past blight behind it. Heaney concludes the first part of the poem with overt references to the potato famine. The religiose quality that was hinted at previously is now explicit in “homage”, “famine god”, “humbled” and “seasonal altar”. The ground becomes the locus of worship each year as those harvesting are only too aware that such largesse in nature cannot be taken for granted. There is a primitive, pagan dimension to the description that aligns the potato diggers with cultures more ancient than the Christian.
Part II of the poem concentrated specifically on the potato itself rather than those who harvest it. They seem to be “petrified hearts of drills” (line 22). In this fine image, the potatoes are presented as having turned to stone, having been described previously as “inflated pebbles”. The common use of the word “petrified” is associated with fear. We are reminded of the trepidation with which each harvest is approached. Heaney goes on to say that these potatoes are “Split / by the spade” communicating both a very straightforward process but also suggesting that those digging in the time of the potato blight would have their own hearts metaphorically split by the act of cutting into a rotten crop. These, though “show white as cream”. Also, there is no rot in them, they are “knots” with a “solid feel”. There is a complicated image at the close of Part 2 that is redolent both of gratitude and horror. The potatoes are “piled in pits” and are described as “live skulls” which reminds us of victims of atrocity as well as conveying the arresting visual metaphor that convinces us that a potato can look like a skull. The fact that they are “blind-eyed” suggests that they are utterly unaware of the way in which they have, in the past, been intimately involved in a pivotal event in Irish history. The “live skulls image” prepares for its repetition in Part III that modulates from a metaphorical description of a potato to a shocking depiction of what human beings literally become as they are reduced to skeletal beings by hunger. From a stanzaic point of view, Part II closes with a sestet rather than a quatrain. This lends weight to the relief and importance associated with the success of the potato crop, something that is to be celebrated as a “clean birth”.
Part III is a much more direct and graphic contemplation upon the reality and impact of the Irish potato famine. Heaney opens with the image of starving people as “Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on / wild higgledy skeletons…” (lines 31-2). We are transported back in time to the mid nineteenth century where people could be “wild” with hunger. The word “higgledy” reminds us of the “higgledy line” of diggers described in Part I. This links the centuries and shows that the activity is the same and that, as humans, we are in thrall to the vicissitudes and unpredictability of nature. In our modern world we are all to familiar with the effects of famine around the world caused by crop failure. It is sobering to learn that so many people died so close to our own country. Shockingly, people were so hungry that they would eat rotten potatoes, and these poisoned them.
There is a macabre transformation described in stanza two of Part III. We left Part II with a description of a permanently sound potato crop but this one only seemed to be “sound as stone” (recalling the “inflated pebbles” in Part II). The solid “petrified” of Part II becomes the “putrefied” of this one. The “clay pit” suggests a place of human burial as well as the trench where potatoes rot. The line, “Millions rotted along with it” refers, on the surface, to potatoes but it also signals to us that the effect of this was to result in the death of mind boggling numbers of people, so dependant were they upon their staple crop.
The third stanza of Part III is uncompromising in it depiction of the effects of starvation on a human body: “Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard”. The image of “a plucked bird” suggests nakedness and death. The bird imagery is extended at the end of a stanza as Heaney presents “beaks of famine” that “snipped at guts”. Here we are given the horrific vision of people as carrion meat for vultures. Although this is metaphorical, it is nonetheless extremely powerful in evoking the pain of starvation. The people’s dwelling, “wicker huts” are places of privation, wheras the “wicker creels” in Part I are containers of plenty.
The land of Ireland itself is, we are reminded, the object of resentment for those who endured the terrible suffering of the Great Hunger. The cultural collective of “A people hungering from birth” takes on a political dimension as well as purely descriptive one. The degradation of having to grub “like plants” makes the people seem worth no more than weeds so it is unsurprising that they should feel that their land is “the bitch earth”. The verb “grafted” is normally used in gardening circles to describe a process that results in the enhancement of life or the production of a new, vigorous strain of plant. Here, though, the famine only results in a grafting to “sorrow”. The dismal “Hope rotted like a marrow” is only trumped by the description of the closing stanza of this part of the poem. The lines are littered with images of decay, rot and stench: “Stinking”, “fouled” “pus”, “filthy” and “running sore” remind us that although the famine is over, it lives on in the memory of the people. In writing the poem, of course, Heaney is keeping such memory alive. There was a great deal of resentment during and following the potato famine. While Irish people starved to death, some of the absentee landlords continued to bleed the country of its resources. While not all of them neglected their workers, there were many scandalous examples of entirely callous unconcern. It is shocking but true to record here that ships laden with food sailed from Ireland while its people starved. It was the English who were largely responsible. It is noticeable that as Heaney’s subject matter and imagery become more stark and astringent, his quatrains become more compact and shrunken, to become more relaxed and capacious again in Part IV.
Part IV modulates from an atmosphere of privation to one of plenty as we return to the diggers we met in Part I, or at least another group who are not deprived of food.. Although the workers in the field are “Dead-beat” they are not dying, they are simply exhausted form their work. There is a “gay flotilla of gulls” that gives the impression of a group of little boats around a great ocean-going vessel. This is a far cry form the ominous crows, plucked bird and the vulture-like spectre that we meet earlier in the poem. Although “The rhythm deadens” inevitably links in the reader’s mind to the death we have already been confronted with earlier in the poem, there is now a new mood of optimism. The workers eat “Brown bread” and drink “tea in bright canfuls”. Rather than simply being servants of the earth, they are “served for lunch”. In their tiredness they are able to “take their fill” in the way that their ancestors could not. Their labour will be rewarded with the satisfaction of garnering a sound potato crop, while their antecedents faced the despair of having worked until they too were “Dead-beat” but with only the spectre of death looming before them instead of the prospect of being served lunch as recompense for their labour. The “timeless fasts” are broken here but in the past they were eternal. The poem concludes with another complex set of ideas. As the workers stretch out in their rest, they are described lying on “faithless ground”. This reminds us of the fact that nature can set its face flint-like against humanity, we cannot predict how it will behave. Although the ground is faithless, a pagan image of an offering to the “bitch earth” of Part III is striking as the workers “spill / Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.” As well as seeming like an offering to the earth (a libation is a drink offering to a god), there is also the clear sense that in times of plenty we tend to be profligate. No famine victim could afford to throw away tea dregs or crusts. The words “spill” and “scatter” capture this sense of ease most effectively. This is not to condemn those doing it, of course. Heaney is drawing attention, by contrast, to the terrible consequences of the failed potato crop in Ireland.
For a marvellous account of the Irish Potato Famine, one need look no further than Cecil Woodham Smith’s The Great Hunger. Patrick Kavanagh’s poem of the same title is required reading also.