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Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” is free verse poem about a man’s observations and reflections of his father and grandfather and his place in the family tradition. The poem is traditionally separated into nine stanzas, but from another viewpoint it can be separated into four parts: the speaker, his father, his grandfather, and then the speaker again. This separation effectively illustrates that the poem forms a circle and at the end of that circle lays self-discovery. There are various poetic devices used throughout the poem to effectively complete the circle and strengthen the theme of the poem.
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The title of this poem is fitting because in the poem there are three generations of diggers. The speaker’s father and grandfather dug up potatoes and the speaker is digging up the past. Interestingly, the word “digging” is repeated three times within the poem. The first stanza of the poem is about the speaker about to write something. This is illustrated by the pen in his hand “â€¦rest[ing]; snug as a gun.” In line two, the words “snug as a gun” illustrate that the pen fits naturally in his hand. Also, in the simile “snug as a gun” the word “snug” if spelled backwards is “guns.” Furthermore, the comparison of the pen to a gun, at first glance, seems awkward and makes little sense. However, when taking a moment to digest the words one can start to draw connections. A gun is a device that relies on precision to hit its target, and the precision is reliant upon the operator of the gun. Similarly, the pen is in need of a good writer to target ideas to put to paper. Rather than bullets, he shoots with words. In addition, the semicolon between rests and snug creates a short pause.
The second stanza breaks from the first and begins describing things, particularly his father, outside of the room that the speaker is in. The speaker describes the sound coming from outside his window as “a clean rasping sound” where the words “clean” and “rasping” serve as an oxymoron to precisely describe the sound. In the second line of the stanza there is alliteration with the words “spade sinks” and “gravelly ground.” The ‘gr-‘ sound which is repeated has a scraping tone to it which is highly relevant to the context of the poem. The words “rasping” and “gravelly” also serve as onomatopoeia to effectively give sound to the descriptions. It isn’t until line three of the stanza that the reader learns that these sounds are coming from the speaker’s father digging. The comma in this line creates a pause which gives the sense that “digging” is something his father is accustomed to doing. Also, he both literally and figuratively “look[s] down” upon his father. This stanza ends midsentence to create a journey through time, which we learn to be twenty years.
Stanza three picks up midsentence, right where stanza two left off. When examining his father’s “straining rump” in line four, the speaker projects a condescending tone towards his father. The word straining also shows the reader that his father’s work is backbreaking labor. In line five, the phrase “comes up twenty years away” tells the reader that the speaker has transplanted himself twenty years in the past. The next line is very musical. The long u of the word stooping sets the tone for the rhythmic line. In the following line, the repetition of the word “digging” at the end of the stanza creates emphasis upon that action and reinforces the theme of the poem.
The fourth stanza continues on with the musically rhythmic actions from the previous stanza, but with more detail. The first line is packed with details. The process by which his father digs is discussed step by step in great detail. During the step by step description the speaker uses alliteration, “tall tops” and “buriedâ€¦ bright” to continue the musical flow started at the end of the previous stanza. In addition, the repetitions of the words with the long ‘u’ sound, such as, “stooping” (from the previous stanza), “boot,” and “rooted” provide reinforcement to the musical flow. In line four, the word “we” tells the reader that the speaker’s father is not alone in the potato farm, the speaker is there with his father. This also illustrates that a child in this time has close relations with his father’s work, confirming the idea that a person’s livelihood will continue within the family through generations. In the next stanza, the speaker’s tone towards his father changes from that of the second; the speaker now finds himself in awe of his father. The exclamation “By God,” is evidence of this. The fifth stanza also introduces the speaker’s grandfather, an excellent digger himself.
In stanza six, the descriptions switch from being about the speaker’s father to his grandfather. The first two lines serve as character development. The reader learns that the speaker’s grandfather was a very efficient digger and one of, if not, the best in his profession. The next line shows the admiration the young speaker has for his grandfather, “Once I carried him milk in a bottle,” the fact that the speaker remembers the trivial task of bringing his grandfather a drink shows the respect he has for him. The next few lines shine light on the grandfather’s character. He has his mind set on the task at hand and refuses to waste time doing anything else.
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In stanza seven, the speaker reignites his widespread use of sound. He uses the word “Nicking” which sounds like the spade going into the soil. Then, he uses the word “slicing” which has a repeating ‘s’ sound and sounds like the soil is being carved out by the end of the spade. Furthermore, he throws in the word “neatly” to show that the grandfather was very methodical about his work. His use of the word “heaving” rather than throwing or lifting describes the grandfather as being a strong person. The repetition of the word “down” shows that this is a repetitive motion that the grandfather endures for a long period of time. This stanza ends with a one word sentence, “Digging.” This places great importance on the word and the ‘d’ and ‘g’ sounds make it even more noticeable.
The next stanza, stanza number eight, switches gears once again. This stanza switches back to being more about the speaker than his father or grandfather. The use of assonance with the words “cold” and “mould” The use of alliteration continues with “squelch,” “slap,” “soggy,” and “curt cuts.” There is also some onomatopoeia with the words “squelch” and “slap.” In line three of the stanza the words “living roots” is a metaphor for the memories that are still alive within the speaker. This also shows that he is getting back to his roots, that is, finding his identity and gaining appreciation for his family. At the end of this stanza the speaker has made a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn. He began by “look[ing] down” on his father and probably his grandfather, but now he feels unworthy and inadequate having “no spade to follow men like them.”
The final stanza is much the same as the first. The only differences are the punctuation and the final line. The use of a period in this stanza creates an even longer pause than the semicolon used in the first stanza. The omission of the “snug as a gun” simile and in its place “I’ll dig with it” shows that he no longer compares his pen to a gun, but now compares it to a spade. This shows the journey that he has made to self-discovery. He has pride in his heritage and admiration for his father and grandfather. All three uses of digging are used on his father or grandfather; it is not until the final line of the poem that the speaker digs.
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