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How to Read Seamus Heaney (Part 2)

In this short series of posts, I am hoping to encourage the reading of poetry for all it’s worth—to foster confidence in those who love to read poems, but perhaps feel a little intimidated by tackling the work of some modern poets. My case study is Seamus Heaney, the most significant poet to emerge from Ireland since W. B. Yeats.

Seamus Heaney’s work spanned some crucial moments in Irish and world history, migrating from the rural simplicity of his boyhood farm to the dazzle of modern cities, documenting the personal and domestic, as well as the conflicts which sundered his society and the communities of the world.

Some basic tools for approaching his work were provided in the introduction to this series, providing a ‘way in’ to his poetic output. In this post I will isolate one his earliest poems, ‘Digging’, and will seek to model how it can be understood and enjoyed by those who are new to his work. To access a copy of the poem (including a wonderful audio recording of Seamus Heaney’s reading of it) please click here.

Of spades and fountain pens

‘Digging’ is the first poem from Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist. Many of his poems have gathered proverbial momentum, but this piece is often viewed as his poetic signature, capturing many of his long term preoccupations about his place in the world. Two images are crucial to understand what he is considering in the poem, providing a kind of punchline for its descriptive section. On the one hand, there is the spade, wielded with skill by his father and grandfather, and on the other there is the pen. These two work instruments will form a kind of tension throughout the whole piece, providing points of comparison and departure, and allowing Seamus Heaney to meditate on where he fits with regard to his heritage.

Ironically, for a writer, the spade receives the majority of attention in the poem—with the weight of imagery leaning on its handle. At this point we can remember the vital importance of emphasising the ‘ordinary’ in Heaney’s work. The spade was an everyday tool in any rural community in Ireland during the poet’s childhood and adolescence, an image of work and connection with the land. In Ireland spades provided points of comparison and definition, often being employed verbally to make a point: to ‘call a spade a spade’ is to speak honestly, to ‘have a face like a Lurgan spade’ is to have a grumpy or doleful expression. The spade is, then, a common implement relied upon for turning the earth and providing produce.

Heaney’s family history with this tool is enriched and prominent, drawing from him some beautiful descriptions of digging on his family farm. The poet is not concerned to make the spade into a flat metaphor, but invests it with texture and detail. Awakened by its ‘clean rasping sound’, he is transported ‘twenty years away’ to when his father was in his prime, working at the ‘potato drills’. As readers we should be in no rush to get to the ‘meaning’ of the poem at this stage. Savouring the way in which the poet meditates on this everyday occurrence from his childhood is deeply enriching. The details are beautiful; potatoes emerge from the earth with ‘cool hardness’; the mechanics of working the earth are regimented and rhythmical, embodying great technical skill—’the coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft/Against the inside knee was levered firmly’.

Such assumed deftness brings the reader to the first vital point of tension in the poem:

By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man. —Seamus Heaney, ‘Digging’

Heaney’s language here is conversational and deeply vernacular, the ‘By God’ serving as a common way to intensify what follows, but it also bears some latent anxiety. There is a heritage in his family of being skilful in using a spade, a long line of men whose labours are renowned and respected, a work ethic and manual skill which serve as a kind of currency in the community. His grandfather’s reputation on the peat bogs was unparalleled, the ‘turf’ cutting being a major part of the mid-Ulster landscape in which Seamus Heaney’s family lived. His own place in that lineage seems somewhat up for grabs.

As with many of Heaney’s poems about his father and grandfather, he finds himself as a moderate outsider to the action, fulfilling a role which is auxiliary. This is reflected in another poem from Death of a Naturalist in which he states that ‘I was a nuisance, tripping, falling/Yapping always.’ Even here his carrying of the milk is graphically precarious, the bottle ‘corked sloppily with paper’, his grandfather’s focus being on the job at hand rather than the grandson who brought him a drink. The connection with the land is profound, ‘going down and down/For the good turf. Digging’.

All of these memories are tainted by a sense of dislocation. The memory of tilled soil, with its ‘squelch and slap/Of soggy peat’ is rooted in the poet’s mind, part of the fabric and landscape of who he is, and who his family was. With pathos he laments, ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. Ultimately, although his imagined world is enriched, Heaney has no purchase on this ground, no right or privilege among these strong and revered workers. This is not merely an image of modernisation, but a reluctant repudiation of the agriculture which has bound the poet’s family to the land for years. Knowing that Heaney was the first of his family to attend university brings his meaning here into sharp relief.

'Digging' makes a one time apologia for what the artist does, then leaves him or her to get on with the important business of plunging into the earth to draw good things for those who depend upon them. Andrew Roycroft

This anxiety finds its resolution in the second main image of the poemthe pen. This is the object that heads and closes the entire piece, a plain rhyme scheme emphasising the fit and feeling of being able to write. Just as the spade had been ‘levered firmly’ by his father, for Heaney the pen ‘rests’ in his hand, ‘snug as a gun’. Here the man and the medium are as much in harmony as a farmer with a spade, and there is an aptitude and rectitude in Heaney holding his writing instrument in this way. Temperamentally and functionally the pen is his chosen tool, and the poem’s final line delivers this with incredible candour and power: ‘Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests/I’ll dig with it’. Where his farming forbears worked the earth with skill and vigour he will now use the pen to penetrate beyond the soil from which he has come, and will embody the same prowess his father and grandfather enjoyed, with a simple shift in instrument and emphasis. Heaney is both in discord and accord with his background, gently leaving the physical world of farm and labour, but carrying into the intellectual world the graft and grit that made tilling possible. It is an extraordinarily powerful image, and an important window into the poet and the poem.

An artist with a place in the world

In the previous post in this series, I emphasised that grasping the immediate physical world Heaney presents is the best way to reach the ‘universals’ that inform his work. ‘Digging’ exemplifies this powerfully. While ostensibly about his specific background, his anxieties, and their resolution, Heaney lays bare some soil which is part of almost every creative person’s struggle—knowing one’s place in the world.

There are some who enjoy (or endure) being part of a creative heritage, where the language of art is well understood. Perhaps more commonly, those who follow the compulsion to create do so at an angle from the background which formed them. An artist might emerge from a working class background in which visual art is not valued or noticed. A poet might find it easier to read her poems to the public than to her parents, sensing an unspoken resistance, or a deeply internalised anxiety about how what they are doing can integrate with where they have come from.

Heaney’s poem does not merely resolve that anxiety, but grants a dignity to creative work which places it in the arena of provision, labour, and tillage. ‘Digging’ is a manifesto for the whole body of work which the poet would later bring into the world, a rationale for how such work ‘fits’ within who he is, and where he has come from. Seen in this light, ‘Digging’ becomes ours as well. Particularly in the evangelical world, creative activity is often misunderstood, hideously commercialised, and commodified into having to ‘function’ according to the parameters of ‘ministry’ or ‘evangelism’. The Christian artist (whatever their medium) often feels like an outsider, and can easily carry deep misgivings and anxiety about where they fit on the ‘family farm’ of church and mission.

Seamus Heaney’s digging pen liberates us to see our work as valid, vital, and a dignified part of human endeavour. ‘Digging’ makes a one time apologia for what the artist does, then leaves him or her to get on with the important business of plunging into the earth to draw good things for those who depend upon them. As we will see in the next post, Heaney does not share the theological or spiritual underpinnings of a ‘Christian artist’, but it takes very little thought to connect what he shares in this poem with our dignity as God’s image bearers, and the mandate to till the earth, given at creation. Those who engage in any kind of creative work (although rejecting the commercial overtones of an ‘industry’) can thus readily see that industriousness, dedication, the honing of skill, and an intimacy with the materials of the world is an endeavour well worth pursuing—as important as breaking sweat while digging crops.

In the next post we will examine Seamus Heaney’s handling of the spiritual world, thinking through how a Christian reader can be challenged by his position, but also enriched in their faith.


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