The first theme of the poem “Digging” is one of Heaney looking back at his family’s history and tradition. Heaney’s ancestry includes both a farming Gaelic past and the modern Ulster industrial revolution, and this tension between the two sides of his past are demonstrated through this poem “digging”. This is a free verse poem containing eight stanzas and two couplets and it is written in the first person narrative, the free nature of this poem allows us to see Heaney expressing the turmoil he feels between the past the present. But it also demonstrates the love and respect he feels for his ancestors.
The poem starts with an image of the poet’s hand “a squat pen rests; snug as gun. ” In using this metaphor Heaney is expressing the power of the written word and the pen much like the power of the gun. Initially Heaney appears far removed from his family’s heritage and the idea that boys are expected to follow in their father’s footsteps. However, when you explore the poem further it becomes clear that Heaney is in fact reminiscing of his past and how he holds both his father and grandfather in great esteem. Whilst reflecting within the poem Heaney is disturbed “under my window, a clean rasping sound”.
Heaney looks and sees his “father, digging. I look down” Whilst watching his father it suggests that he sees how natural his father is at digging and it invokes the memories he had as a child of both his father and grandfather. Heaney describes both men with a boyish admiration and of his father Heaney exclaims “By god, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man. ” And of his grandfather “My grandfather cut more turf in a day than any other man on Toner’s bog. ” a true local legend. This demonstrates how Heaney sees both men as working class heroes.
The second theme of the poem has Heaney reflecting on himself, whom he considers to have less-admirable qualities compared to his honest and hardworking father and grandfather. Heaney wonders if his grandfather forever associated him with the bottle of milk that was “corked sloppily with paper”, as Heaney is not the traditional man that his grandfather was. Heaney then draws comparisons the sloppiness of the cork and the softness of the paper to the no-nonsense attitude of his grandfather as demonstrated when the states of this grandfather “He straightened up to drink it, and then fell right to way. This leads Heaney to believe that he will never measure up to his father and grandfather whose earthy physicality he so admires. The third theme is one of realisation about Heaney to himself “But I have no spade to follow men like them. ”Heaney understands that whilst he is not the traditional man like his ancestors his ultimate accomplishment is in fact letting go of the guilt associated with not following in their footsteps and looking down upon the manual labour as mere pre modernist stages of human existence.
Upon reflecting Heaney does uncover his connection to his past and realises he has modernity of his mother’s nature within him. Heaney realises he can express the traditional side of his character through the power of the pen and his writing and in the last stanza Heaney writes “Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen tests. I’ll dig with it. ” Heaney will continue the traditions of his father by “digging” with the pen through his writing.