Whether or not we follow in the footsteps of our fathers, of our mothers, is a real question for some. In every profession, you’ll find strings of generations all of whom took position as their ancestors did. Sheriffs, doctors, painters, presidents, all sorts. This could be because the opportunity and exposure was potent enough growing up, the job just seemed right. For some it’s all they have known. But not everyone takes the same parental path.
Seamus Heaney tackles this subject – among many other ideas – in the form of digging, as titled. His father digs, just as his grandfather dug, both of whom could wield a spade as another limb. To put it simply, whilst he admires their strength and skill, Heaney is no digger. Instead, he’s a writer, and discovers he’ll more appropriately ‘dig’ with his pen.
I’d say this is one of my favourite poems of all time, for two reasons. First, the use of language is perfect. The art of digging is so clearly presented – the ‘clean rasping sound,’ ‘Nicking and slicing neatly’ – and its brings the actions to life. The descriptions are heavy with weighted words – ‘his straining rump’, ‘lug’, ‘heaving sods’ – which flourish the effort and strength required for the job. It’s nicely contrasted to the way he brought his father milk from ‘a bottle / Corked sloppily with paper’.
Secondly, it dispelled the fears of the question ‘what to do in life.’ As mentioned, a lot of people turn to the work of their parents. It can be difficult when you realise the work of your parents isn’t for you. Perhaps you don’t have the skill, perhaps not the interest. For generations who’ve done the same thing, there can be a perceived pressure not to break the chain. But, as Heaney writes, what really matters is that you work hard; you strive to accomplish your goals, you sweat and burn for them, whatever the profession or occupation.
In this case, the torch is translated, the ‘living roots’ have been ‘cut’: the pen has become the symbol of hard, honest work, that Heaney is able to utilise and manoeuvre as well as his old man and a spade. He can carry the legacy of commitment to a craft. As Heaney puts it, you dig, you pause for milk, and then you carry on.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
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
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.