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Eoghan Dunne Digging the bog: The significance of working the land in the poetry of Seamus Heaney.

It comes as no surprise to most people that the first poem in Seamus Heaney's first collection is entitled Digging. Digging, the action thereof, plays a huge role in the poetic works of Seamus Heaney, just as it has for thousands of years since the Iron Age, for the people who inhabited the island of Ireland. Heaney recognises the importance of digging the bog, as it is colloquially known, as a means of survival for the Irish people, from his childhood to the present day and even in the times of Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man, who themselves owe their life stories to the bog. Heaney and all Irish people owe their lives to the land, the bog, and the digging of both. I will be focusing on the poem Digging, and of course on the action of digging the bog and the land themselves, in an effort to show how closely Heaney ties his poetry to the land that his people have lived off. Between my finger and thumb / The squat pen rests, snug as a gun. Seamus Heaney is a poet and writer, and is not a farmer or physical labourer, and admits this freely within the first lines of his first collection. Heaney does not today take up a spade and dig for turf in the bog like his father and grandfather would do, but yet he does dig the land in a metaphorical way to make his living. Heaney has no spade, but a pen to dig with. And he draws from the land his livelihood, just as his ancestors did before him, and makes his living thanks to the land and the bog that hold Iron Age Ireland and the country of the present day together, and everything in between. Heaney digs to uncover inspiration, insight and history, and to find a nugget of Irish life worth writing about, these things that are always preserved by the marshlands of the bog. Metaphors of digging and uncovering, of sounding wells and gazing into their depths, become (and remain) his central metaphors for the poetic process. 'The concise companion to postwar British and Irish poetry' asserts that the poet digs for his livelihood just as his father did before him. And the metaphor of digging bogland is evident throughout Heaney's collections. Allied to this figurative claim are the many poems devoted to farm, artisan or craft labour whose final metaphoric movement elides this physical work with poetic craft. Poems like Bogland, Bog Oak, Bog Queen, and The Digging Skeleton all refer to the bog as a rich source of history, and the spade as a means of uncovering it. Heaney's spade is his pen, snug as a gun, it suits him better than a tool of physical labour.

Heaney, a modern Irish man, who today would likely see no physical use for the bog or the land personally, is living in a very different time to that of his father. His father and his grandfather would have shared a very similar Ireland, and the further we look back in the generations the less Ireland changes with respect to the necessity of working the land and digging the bog for food and for fuel respectively. A child born in Ireland today, at least in an urban setting, will likely not ever find himself on a bog, and think nothing of it. Heaney does not need the bog in a physical sense, but needs it as it is a source of great history, and tradition, and culture. Irish culture has always needed the bog, and the land, and its people have made use of both for thousands of years. The poet needs the land and the bog. The bog especially, as it has preserved anything that has ever been left there. Tools, bodies, a culture from a thousand years ago, a sense of Irishness of belonging to the island, all lie in marshy pits and under layers and layers of peat. Irish people today still dig the bog, and will continue to as long as it remains, forever uncovering their own history physically, and Heaney, metaphorically, as he is not suited to the spade. Adrian Pilkington agrees, but offers another view as well. Some of the contexts set up earlier in this poem include (among much else) the information that digging is how the poet's forefathers earned their living, that it is an activity and occupation with a long tradition in the community, that it is hard and honest and necessary work, that it requires intense concentration and that it inspires awe. The information that Heaney gives the reader is that he believes his pen to be his spade, and uses it as such a tool in the poetic process. Pilkington agrees with this, but, the information -while being there- is not exactly stressed, and Pilkington believes that the pen, while a strong metaphor, is a weak substitute. Many more such contextual assumptions might be accessed and the properties of 'digging' in these assumptions transferred, by inference, to the activity of writing poetry. A danger of starting to make [such a list], apart from it being incomplete, is that it mistakenly suggests that all these assumptions are strongly communicated and equally strongly communicated. Many of these assumptions are weakly implicated or made marginally more manifest. Heaney himself grew up with the saying, The pen is lighter than the sword and seems to concede that he cannot completely match his father and grandfather's efforts in the final lines of the poem, writing 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. Heaney does his best to emulate his forefathers, but men that needed to dig the bog to survive for fuel for warmth, and to cook food these men had the necessity to put all they had into working the land, for fear of death, and Heaney cannot match that necessity, much as he tries, because there is no life or death risk to compel him. My grandfather

cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner's bog. Heaney's efforts do not physically match up. Perhaps it is unfair to say of Heaney that the effort he gives in being a poet is not comparable to the effort of digging we see from his grandfather. Yes, Heaney hardly breaks a sweat when he writes, but he does not have such a simplistic job as putting a spade into the ground. I believe that the work his grandfather did and the work that Heaney does are more comparable than we see at first glance. Heaney's grandfather is a master digger, not just in the physically demanding sense, but also in a creative way. He writes of his grandfather Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods / Over his shoulder, going down and down / For the good turf. Digging. Here his grandfather is working very creatively, like a sculptor, Nicking and slicing neatly, rather like a poet would trim a sentence down or shorten a stanza. The effort does not always have to be physical, and the poetic process the creation of a piece of art, is much more similar to the art form of digging turf when closely analysed. In Ireland, cutting turf is not a young man's game. It takes a seasoned hand to properly form a sod of turf, which is a valuable resource and requires experience and delicate but firm touch, much like a well crafted poem is not a spur of the moment ten minute effort. Both are tied intrinsically to Ireland, and both are the product of time and care and attention to detail. Heaney's pen seems a much more suitable metaphor for, or indeed replacement for a spade when we look closely at the act of digging itself. Alexander G. Gonzalez, author of 'Modern Irish Writers', believes,'Digging', the first poem in Heaney's first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), is a synecdoche, of sorts for the poet's entire oeuvre: It is a poem based upon a childhood memory that is recalled in vivid detail. The memory often recalls a rite of passage, epiphany, or Wordsworthian spot of time that either confirms or disturbs the poet's sense of self. Heaney, as a writer, and as an Irishman, must find his inspiration in the history of Ireland, and the bod serves as the perfect place to dig up the past. The bog preserves everything. Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man, like the figures in the poems Bog Queen and Punishment, have been preserved, and are tangible connections to the Ireland that once was. The bog preserves for us the history of our culture and our people, physically as well as metaphorically, so Heaney must dig the bog to learn and to write about Ireland, and thus, about himself. Every one of his ancestors survived thanks to the bog, and he as well as all Irishmen owes his life to the bog, however incidental it's affect may be today, it nurtured Ireland for thousands of years.

By God, the old man could handle a spade. / Just like his old man. The tradition of digging and working the land is one of the oldest and most important in Ireland. Families would work together, generation after generation, with land passed down from father to son, and land meant money, food and survival of the family itself. The teaching and learning of farm labour or how to navigate a bog with children even today told of the dangers of bogholes was a rite of passage for an Irishman. While today it is rarely an important part of the Irish life, a young man would learn from his family how to take care of himself and a family of his own. The digging of the land was a huge lesson to learn, and Heaney has learned it in his own way, through writing, but still very much living off the land. 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., sights, sounds and smells that the men, women and children of Ireland would have all heard and remembered, each one of them from the Iron Age to the days of Heaney's father, all would have heard and seen and smelled all the same things for thousands of years. The bog in particular, moreso than the land, ties ancient Ireland to the present day, and allows a digger like Heaney evidence and insight enough to dig with his pen and earn his livelihood in a slightly different, but very similar way. The dominant image, (digging) functions as an analogy for the writing process digging into past, into myth and history. The poem points to Heaney's preoccupation with origins. The fact that Digging is a poem concieved from a childhood memory serves to show the reader that working the land, unearthing new potatoes that we picked, / Loving their cool hardness in our hands and carrying milk to his grandfather as he sliced sod after sod of turf, all was a part of how an Irish person lived. Central to his childhood is this image of his forefathers living off the land, and it is clear that that is where Irish people come from. Their origin is in the land. Ireland, before farming, was a country covered entirely with dense forests, and only when farming and the Iron Age arrived, did the population of the island begin to flourish and grow. All Irish people originate from the land, as without coal the bog served as a source of fuel for food and warmth, and life. Heaney himself has said, And when we look for the history of our sensibilities I am convinced, as professor J.C. Beckett was convinced about the history of Ireland generally, that it is to what he called the stable element, the land itself, that we must look for continuity. Heaney himself believes that working the land, digging the bog and digging with his pen are one in the same in Irish life.


Blanton, C.D., Nigel Alderman and Peter Middleton. Concise companion to post-war British and Irish poetry. Hoboken, NJ, USA: Wiley-Blackwell, 03/2009. Page 98. Accessed via ebrary academic complete, Feb 2012.

Gonzalez, Alexander G. Irish Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT, USA: Greenwood Press, 08/1997. Accessed via ebrary academic complete, Feb 2012.

Heaney, Seamus. Death of a Naturalist. London: Faber, 1966.

Lloyd, David. Pap for the Dispossessed: Seamus Heaney and the Poetics of Identity. Duke University Press, 1985. Page 325. Accessed via Jstor, Feb 2012.

Pilkington, Adrian. Poetic Effects. A relevance theory perspective. Philadelphia, PA, USA: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 05/2000. Page 103. Accessed via ebrary academic complete, Feb 2012.