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Seamus Heaney


Fiction | Poem | Adult

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Summary and Study Guide


Seamus Heaney’s “Digging,” originally published as the opening poem of Heaney’s celebrated collection Death of a Naturalist (1966), is an intense, onomatopoeic exploration of family, tradition, and inheritance. Heavily influenced by Heaney’s Irish heritage, “Digging” speaks to the intensely familial traditions of Ireland and its people, while also highlighting the tension between the old, agriculturally-based society of the past and the new realities of modern life in Ireland post World War II.

Described by poet Robert Lowell as “the most important Irish poet since Yeats,” Heaney was a poetic superpower who served as both the Poet in Residence at Harvard University (1988-2006) and as the Professor of Poetry at Oxford (1989-1994). In 1995, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Heaney’s work is heralded for its attention to place and landscape. It is impossible to divorce from Heaney’s work the natural beauty of Northern Ireland or the history of its rural working class. Farm life, physical labor, and the mythologically-charged power of Ireland’s bogs are common themes in Heaney’s work. Like Yeats before him, Heaney was touched by the political unrest in Northern Ireland, and his work often deals with the upheaval and violence of the Troubles. (For contextual information and an explanation of the Northern Ireland conflict, see the “What were the Troubles?” YouTube video or Ronan McGreevy’s article in the Further Reading section of this guide).

“Digging” comments upon the patriarchal inheritance of labor, and the weight of history, both familial and cultural. As the opening poem of Heaney’s first major published collection, Death of a Naturalist, “Digging,” serves as a thorough introduction to his poetic preoccupations with naturalism and Irish history, as well as a secondary introduction to the poetic preoccupations of the Postmodern age: violence, lost innocence, death, finality, and warfare. The speaker is connected to his forefathers through a dense web of love and tradition; he belongs to both the simple, natural landscape of his family’s past, and the educated worldliness of the future. The speaker’s pen is ultimately neither a “gun” nor a “spade,” but it wields the power and strength of both.

Poet Biography

Born on April 13, 1939 at Mossbawn, the Heaney family’s farmhouse, Seamus Justin Heaney grew up surrounded by the hills and marshes of Northern Ireland. Heaney spent his childhood at Mossbawn, situated between the villages of Castledawson and Toomebridge, of Counties Londonderry and Antrim, respectively, until he moved with the rest of his family to Bellaghy in 1953. When Heaney was 12 years old, his younger brother, only four at the time, was struck and killed in an automobile accident. The tragic event was shocking for Heaney and featured in several of his early poems, including “The Blackbird of Glanmore” and “Mid-Term Break.”

In 1957, when Heaney was 18, he began studying English Language and Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast, and he went on to graduate with honors in 1961. Afterwards, Heaney received his teaching certification from St. Joseph’s Teacher Training College and began teaching at a local Belfast school, St. Thomas’ Secondary Intermediate, where he met lifelong friend and mentor Michael McLaverty. McLaverty, an older writer also from Northern Ireland, played an important role in Heaney’s life and introduced the younger man to the work of other Irish poets, including Patrick Kavanagh.

While attending St. Joseph’s, Heaney met writer and teacher Marie Devlin. The two married in 1965, and Heaney’s first book Eleven Poems was published later the same year; Eleven Poems was quickly followed by Heaney’s first acclaimed volume of poetry, Death of a Naturalist in 1966. The couple welcomed two sons, Michael and Christopher, in 1966 and 1968, and the publication of Heaney’s Door into the Dark followed in 1969.

The seventies were a particularly prolific time for Heaney. After a brief stint as a lecturer at the University of California, Berkely, and another short stay in Belfast, Heaney settled in Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland and began writing full time. Over the next couple of years, Heaney published several collections and books, including Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975). Following the publication of North, Heaney and his family moved to Dublin, where Heaney was appointed as the Head of English at Carysfort College. In 1979, he published Field Work, closely followed by Selected Poems 1965-1975 and Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978.

When the Irish Arts Council, Aosdána, was formed in 1981, Heaney was elected to its first group. He later became a Saoi, an elected elder, for Aosdána, in 1997. Throughout the eighties, Heaney spent time as a visiting professor and later tenured faculty member at Harvard, and he also received honorary doctorates from several other universities. In 1984, his mother passed away, followed by Heaney’s father two years later. The loss of both of his parents supremely marked Heaney and his work in the years to come.

Heaney spent the early 1990s as the Oxford Professor of Poetry, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. Over the course of his career, Heaney was inspired by a variety of other poets, including Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and W. B. Yeats. In his later life, he also expressed admiration for American rapper Eminem. While Heaney is known primarily for his poetry, he also completed many works of prose, drama, and translation, including a much-beloved verse translation of Beowulf, originally published in 1999. He died in Dublin in 2013, at the age of 74. Heaney texted his final words, the Latin phrase, “Noli timere” to his wife only minutes before his death; “Be not afraid.”

Poem Text

Heaney, Seamus. “Digging.” 1966. Poetry Foundation.


“Digging” opens with a couplet that provides a direct comparison of the speaker’s writing instrument, a pen, to a more violent, powerful tool: the gun (Lines 1-2). Outside, beneath his window, the speaker’s father moves in tandem with his instrument, the shovel, creating the “clean gasping sound” that initially draw’s the speaker’s attention away from his own work and his pen (Line 3). The couplet is followed by an image, drenched in sound, of the speaker’s “father, digging” (Line 5).

In the third stanza, there is a time shift as the speaker lapses into memory, and the speaker describes his father working “twenty years away / Stooping in rhythm through potato drills / Where he was digging” (Lines 7-9). The fourth stanza then continues this lapse by digging deeper into the memory. Heaney describes the father’s actions, repetitive and familiar: “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” (Lines 10-12). The third-person description of the father falls away, and Heaney’s speaker joins in the work himself near the end of the fourth stanza when he explains that his father worked “To scatter new potatoes that we picked, / Loving their cool hardness in our hands” (Lines 13-14). The speaker joins in a communion of work with his father, becoming one in a long length of chain connecting the speaker to his father and his father to his grandfather. In the following stanza, another couplet, Heaney transitions the reader through the next layer of family memory and inheritance with a simple reflection on that link of connection, the spade: “By God, the old man could handle a spade. / Just like his old man” (Lines 14-15).

The sixth stanza opens with the speaker’s grandfather, a man who could “cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner’s bog” (Lines 16-17). The introduction then descends into memory once again, and the speaker recalls specific details of time spent working with his grandfather (Lines 18-19). Heaney uses sound and movement to present a final image of the grandfather “going down and down / For the good turf. Digging” (Lines 22-23).

Stanzas 7 and 8 work together as a culmination of the poem. At the beginning of the seventh stanza, the speaker is brought back to the present despite the sharp, familiar stench of “potato mould, the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat” (Lines 24-25). The speaker states, directly, that, despite his memory and the weight of the shovel of inheritance, he has “no spade to follow men like them” (Line 27). In the closing lines of the poem, the speaker completes the comparison he began in the opening couplet; his tool, his weapon, and his livelihood will be “the squat pen” (Line 29). Like his forefathers, he will “dig with it” (Line 30).