by Michael Woods
This is the first poem in Heaney’s first collection and it may be thought of as a poet’s credo or manifesto, in much the same way as W B Yeats’s ‘A Coat’ Here, Heaney sets out on his project of following his vocation. The spade/pen metaphor is worked right through the poem. His sense of the past is clearly articulated in the way he recalls “living roots” which are literally those that are cut through by his father and grandfather as they dig and dug and the metaphorical roots that constitute his cultural heritage, one that is rooted in agriculture.
From his window, the poet sees his father digging and this triggers memories of seeing the same thing when he was a boy. He feels great pride in the physical prowess of his father and grandfather physical and their hard-working, agricultural lives. However, he also realises he “has no spade to follow men like them”, recognising that his method of “digging” will be a metaphorical one by using his pen as a spade. The poet will keep his antecedents’ culture alive by preserving it and promoting it in his writing.
The poem opens with a mixture of precision and almost dangerous intent:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests snug as a gun.
The opening couplet is typographically separated on the page from the first three line stanza to reinforce the contrast with the writer’s activity and that of his father who is engaged in the physical activity of digging, something that is observed by the poet but not shared. The observation takes the poet back “twenty years” to a time when his father was doing exactly the same thing. This establishes a sense of continuity, a central theme of the poem. The repetition of the word “digging” (lines 5, 9 & 24), which is also the title of the poem, clinches this. The activity of digging is observed with precision because it is a precise act in itself. The parts of the spade are carefully included; the “lug”, “shaft” and “edge” are as much part of his father’s and grandfather’s oral and working tradition, as they now become part of his written vocation. There is a careful contrast drawn between a “coarse boot” (line 10) and the fact that it “nestled” on the lug of the spade. The business of digging peat requires brute strength suggested in the strongly alliterated “buried the bright edge deep” (line 12) is skilled and this is reflected in the precision of “Nicking and slicing neatly” (line 22). The strength required to dig peat is not forgotten, though, and the enjambment of lines reflects the continuous, arduous process of digging: “heaving sods / Over his shoulder…” (lines 22-3).
There is real pride in the statements made in lines 15-16:
“By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.”
The tradition of working hard is focused on in the description of the poet’s grandfather who hardly stopped working except when he “straightened up” (line 20) to drink the milk his grandson took him in a bottle “Corked sloppily with paper.” (line 20).
Heaney has remarked that he sees the act of writing poems as sometimes analogous to embarking upon an archaeological dig. The cultural memory evoked in the poem is simultaneously personal and collective in that there are many people who may well have grown up in an agrarian environment but who, as a result of the 1944 Education Act, progressed to an education they would not otherwise have had. This demographic shift resulted in a new generation of people who earned their living in radically different ways from those of their parents. In this poem, Heaney communicates a sensitive awareness to the need to commemorate and celebrate a way of life that is of intrinsic, dignified value, even if he cannot physically follow in the footsteps of previous generations.
Heaney has said that poetry is “restoration of the culture to itself” and has referred to poems as “elements of continuity, with the aura and authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has am importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants”. (Preoccupations p.41) Line 27 encapsulates the experiences of what it is to be ab artist in relation to past tradition: “…living roots awaken in my head”. Although many years have passed, the poet feels that his heritage is very much part of his poetic present and he will ensure that it will be remembered in posterity by enshrining its memory in his writing
He also draws attention to the poem’s significance in his own artistic development:
“‘Digging’, in fact, was the name of the first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words, or to put it more accurately, where I thought my feel had got into words. Its rhythms and noises still please me.”
We are very quickly aware that the pen and the spade are emblematic of two distinct ways of life, one academic and artistic, and the other manual and agricultural. Heaney says:
“The pen/spade analogy was the simple heart of the matter”
The poem opens and concludes with the image of a pen, first as weapon and then as instrument of cultural excavation. Paradoxically, by breaking with his father’s and grandfather’s way of making a living he is also continuing it by preserving it in the cultural memory. We are part of the reading community that is able to connect or reconnect with the rural past through Heaney’s poem. At the heart of the poem, of course, is the poet’s conscious decision to “dig” with the pen rather than the spade. Heaney also wrote:
I now believe that the ‘Digging’ poem had for me the force of an initiation
He went on to remark in a self deprecating way:
“I don’t want to overload ‘Digging’ with too much significance. It is a big coarse-grained navvy of a poem”
Despite the fact that he does capture the rough and ready aspect of the hard graft of digging, one of the striking aspects of the poem is Heaney’s precision with, and energising of, language. Unsurprisingly, he has written, “poetry involves a conscious savouring of words” (Preoccupations p.46). The sheer noise generated by his poetic diction is enough, on its own, to make this poem memorable. From the “clean rasping sound” (line 3) of his father’s spade in “gravelly ground” (line 4) to the “squelch and slap / of soggy peat” we hear a relishing of words for their power to evoke. We are struck by the energy of both alliteration and onomatopoeia in these examples.
Acutely aware of his rural “living roots” and his farming lineage, he decided to keep tradition alive, not by working the land but by investing his writing with its significances. He is, in a sense unearthing the past with his poem. Archaeological images appear repeatedly in subsequent collections, most notably in the magisterial collections, North and Wintering Out. Here is Heaney laying down his cultural coordinates, the latitude and longitude or the warp and weft of his poetic cloth.
As we read the poem progresses it first regresses then returns to its own occasion of writing. Heaney begins with himself, and then moves a description of his father, grandfather and finally of himself as he decides to “dig” with his pen.
This poem is pivotal in Heaney’s writing career because it made him feel that he had made “more than an arrangement of words”. It is of central importance in his work should not be underestimated, despite the fact that it appeared in his first collection over forty years ago. It was this poem that he recited (no book was necessary) to conclude his first public reading which was in Cheltenham Town Hall after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.