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At a Potato Digging

by Seamus Heaney

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• Whilst the famine is no longer a threat. One is the harvest from the present day (written in the ’60s) that goes successfully and which delivers a rich crop. its ongoing fear remains and this can be seen in the use of religious language throughout the poem. • The second potato harvest looks back to the famine of 1845 when the crop failed and many people starved.Context • The poem deals with two different potato harvests. H .

600. • The number of Irish who emigrated during the famine may have reached 1.000 by 1851. • About 1.000 people died from starvation or from typhus and other famine-related diseases.Potato Famine • The Irish Potato Famine occurred in Ireland in 1845-49 when the potato crop failed in successive years.000 in 1844 had fallen to 6.400.5 million. • As a direct consequence of the famine. H .100. Ireland's population of almost 8.

Heads bow. sound as stone. stretched on the faithless ground. in the bitch earth. they show white as cream. spill Libations of cold tea. were grafted with a great sorrow. Thankfully breaking timeless fasts. Split by the spade. The workers sit happily. they flop Down in the ditch and take their fill. blind-eyed. AT A POTATO DIGGING I A mechanical digger wrecks the drill. Dead-beat. purple. with food to eat. live skulls. trucks bend. like plants. blind-eyed. H In the final section of the poem. The rough bark of humus erupts knots of potatoes (a clean birth) whose solid feel. the workers stop. scatter crusts. To be piled in pits. Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould. White bread and tea in bright canfuls Are served for lunch. Make a seasonal altar of the sod. Labourers swarm in behind. The second section of the poem involves the healthy potatoes being described. Then. Processional stooping through the turf Turns work to ritual. eyes died hard. Mouths tightened in. whose wet inside promises taste of ground and root. Millions rotted along with it.' wolfed the blighted root and died. Centuries Of fear and homage to the famine god Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees. stoop to fill Wicker creels. Heaney returns to the first section of the poem – Ireland in the 1960s at lunchtime. Like crows attacking crow-black fields. hands fumble towards the black Mother. . Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch A full creel to the pit and straighten. grubbing. balanced on wild higgledy skeletons scoured the land in 'forty-five. IV Under a white flotilla of gulls The rhythm deadens. faces chilled to a plucked bird. putrified when it had lain three days in the long clay pit. They lie scattered Like inflated pebbles. pits turned pus in filthy mounds: and where potato diggers are you still smell the running sore. II Flint-white. stand Tall for a moment but soon stumble back To fish a new load from the crumbled surf. Stinking potatoes fouled the land. Fungus destroyed the entire crop of potatoes and this happened for three consecutive years. they stretch A higgledy line from hedge to headland. In a million wicker huts beaks of famine snipped at guts. III Live skulls. Fingers go dead in the cold. Good smells exude from crumbled earth.The poem begins with Heaney describing workers in a potato field in Ireland. The third section writes about the famine of the past. The new potato. Native to the blank hutch of clay where the halved seed shot and clotted these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem the petrified hearts of drills. Hope rotted like a marrow. They follow a machine that turns up the crop and they put these into a basket and then store them. A people hungering from birth.

Split by the spade. like plants. live skulls.which breaks down only in the poem's final line. Millions rotted along with it.AT A POTATO DIGGING I A mechanical digger wrecks the drill. Like crows attacking crow-black fields. hands fumble towards the black Mother. were grafted with a great sorrow. The new potato. whose wet inside promises taste of ground and root.' wolfed the blighted root and died. eyes died hard. they show white as cream. the workers stop. spill Libations of cold tea. Centuries Of fear and homage to the famine god Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees. H . Labourers swarm in behind. balanced on wild higgledy skeletons scoured the land in 'forty-five. Heads bow. The rough bark of humus erupts knots of potatoes (a clean birth) whose solid feel. II Flint-white. trucks bend. The third section uses rhyme in pairs: AABB and so on. Then. Why might Heaney do this? The second section has fewer rhymes in an irregular pattern. Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch A full creel to the pit and straighten. Mouths tightened in. blind-eyed. III Live skulls. stretched on the faithless ground. Dead-beat. purple. In a million wicker huts beaks of famine snipped at guts. Fingers go dead in the cold. stand Tall for a moment but soon stumble back To fish a new load from the crumbled surf. faces chilled to a plucked bird. scatter crusts. putrified when it had lain three days in the long clay pit. Good smells exude from crumbled earth. Thankfully breaking timeless fasts. Stinking potatoes fouled the land. pits turned pus in filthy mounds: and where potato diggers are you still smell the running sore. in the bitch earth. sound as stone. Native to the blank hutch of clay where the halved seed shot and clotted these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem the petrified hearts of drills. They lie scattered Like inflated pebbles. Processional stooping through the turf Turns work to ritual. they stretch A higgledy line from hedge to headland. Hope rotted like a marrow. Lines and sections run into each other. they flop Down in the ditch and take their fill. The first and last sections have a loose iambic metre and a clear ABAB rhyme scheme . stoop to fill Wicker creels. To be piled in pits. IV Under a white flotilla of gulls The rhythm deadens. A people hungering from birth. grubbing. White bread and tea in bright canfuls Are served for lunch. blind-eyed. Make a seasonal altar of the sod. Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.

Centuries Of fear and homage to the famine god Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees. Suggests the vast number of labourers involved ‘stoop’ Might this suggest prostration as well as the back breaking labour? Tall for a moment but soon stumble back The work is To fish a new load from the crumbled surf. Make a seasonal altar of the sod. they stretch A higgledy line from hedge to headland. stand Could this also have military connotations? Struggling to live of the land. trucks bend. Processional stooping through the turf Turns work to ritual. I A mechanical digger wrecks the drill. hard and Heads bow. May also suggest the routine of the work. Labourers swarm in behind. Why else might Heaney have chosen this phrase? Enjambment at this and other points in the poem suggest the H unending nature of the work . Fingers go dead in the cold. stoop to fill Wicker creels. Like crows attacking crow-black fields. hands fumble towards the black uncomfortable. Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch A full creel to the pit and straighten. Mother.We now rely on technology to dig the land. Is this natural? Vivid image of the power of the machine over the land. Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould. Man’s power over nature? Wreck the rows in which the potatoes are planted.

Why crows? Scavengers? ‘Birds of Death’ A full basket of potatoes to be stored Proud of their labours and enjoying a short break Again the labour is referred to in terms of a battle. emphasising the exhausting nature what they do . trucks bend. H work. Centuries Of fear and homage to the famine god Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees. stoop to fill Wicker creels. they stretch A higgledy line from hedge to headland. Make a seasonal altar of the sod. Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch A full creel to the pit and straighten. Labourers swarm in behind.Links the people to nature both as animals and as a description of the land. Perhaps a battle for survival? I The workers could be seen as soldiers in the fight A mechanical digger wrecks the drill. Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould. Like crows attacking crow-black fields. Processional stooping through the turf Turns work to ritual. Heads bow. hands fumble towards the blackbrief and they ‘stumble’ back to Mother. Fingers go dead in the cold. stand Emphasises the sheer number of them involved Tall for a moment but soon stumble back The respite is To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.

Processional stooping through the turf fear? Turns work to ritual.What is the effect of this metaphor on the reader? Gives a strong visual image of the land after the drills are wrecked. Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould. Labourers swarm in behind. Centuries Of fear and homage to the famine god Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees. trucks bend. H Giver of life. Fingers go dead in the cold. Protector. Does it suggest the skill of the people? Bowed in prayer? I A mechanical digger wrecks the drill. Make a seasonal altar of the sod. stand Tall for a moment but soon stumble back Is this a pagan To fish a new load from the crumbled surf. Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch A full creel to the pit and straighten. Heads bow. Acknowledgement of importance Is Heaney suggesting that God forsook them in the famine? . they stretch A higgledy line from hedge to headland. Prostration? Is this an almost religious experience? Like crows attacking crow-black fields. stoop to fill Wicker creels. hands fumble towards the black God that they Mother.

live skulls. they show white as cream. purple. Native to the blank hutch of clay where the halved seed shot and clotted these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem the petrified hearts of drills.making sure they are free of the H blight. To be piled in pits. perhaps mimicking the irregular sizes and shapes of the potatoes Potatoes piled as bodies once were Repeated image of death linked to the potato across generations by memories of the famine II Flint-white. Split by the spade. Images of death abound once more and these are echoed in the next stanza about the famine . Good smells exude from crumbled earth. The rough bark of humus erupts knots of potatoes (a clean birth) whose solid feel. whose wet inside promises taste of ground and root.Assonance and alliteration stress the natural links between the potatoes and the land The second section has fewer rhymes in an irregular pattern. Heart of the land Each year the potato harvest can be an anxious process. They lie scattered Like inflated pebbles. blind-eyed. as the workers smell the potatoes and feel them for firmness .

were grafted with a great sorrow.Repeated image but this time it is starving people who are ‘skulls’ and ‘blind-eyed’ ’45 needs no year date because the event is such a part of Ireland’s social consciousness III Live skulls. pits turned pus in filthy mounds: and where potato diggers are you still smell the running sore. A people hungering from birth. Higgledy people reflect the higgledy lines in which they work now (section 1) Animal savagery suggesting the hardness of the times They still ate the bad potatoes but couldn’t survive . The new potato. H ‘balanced’ implies the weakness of people and their skeletal hunger. like plants. Mouths tightened in. In a million wicker huts beaks of famine snipped at guts. grubbing. sound as stone. in the bitch earth. faces chilled to a plucked bird. eyes died hard. Stinking potatoes fouled the land.' wolfed the blighted root and died. Hope rotted like a marrow. Millions rotted along with it. putrified when it had lain three days in the long clay pit. blind-eyed. balanced on wild higgledy skeletons scoured the land in 'forty-five.

Millions rotted along with it.' wolfed the blighted root and died. faces chilled to a plucked bird. The new potato. H Ambiguous phrase. like plants.The language is incredibly negative and harsh. grubbing. Much like the times they are describing III Live skulls. Stinking potatoes fouled the land. sound as stone. putrified when it had lain three days in the long clay pit. the people rotted along with the potatoes and died Heaney describes the false hope of a sound new potato which rots and dies in the pit . A people hungering from birth. in the bitch earth. eyes died hard. pits turned pus in filthy mounds: and where potato diggers are you still smell the running sore. blind-eyed. were grafted with a great sorrow. balanced on wild higgledy skeletons scoured the land in 'forty-five. In a million wicker huts beaks of famine snipped at guts. Hope rotted like a marrow. Mouths tightened in.

Cruel and forgiving (the famine god?) . H Life-long hunger and misery is emphasised here The earth is not ‘mother’ but ‘bitch’ now. Millions rotted along with it. ‘wicker’ emphasises the simplicity of their lives but also links back to their ‘wicker creels’. metaphorical beaks of hunger attack the guts of the hungry. sound as stone. visual account of the physical effects of the famine III Live skulls. Stinking potatoes fouled the land. Both are devoid of potatoes due to the famine Snipping. like plants.' wolfed the blighted root and died. balanced on wild higgledy skeletons scoured the land in 'forty-five. in the bitch earth. The new potato. putrified when it had lain three days in the long clay pit.Vivid. eyes died hard. pits turned pus in filthy mounds: and where potato diggers are you still smell the running sore. were grafted with a great sorrow. blind-eyed. Could this link back to the images of crows earlier on? Suggesting hard work Marked with sorrow? Mouths tightened in. A people hungering from birth. In a million wicker huts beaks of famine snipped at guts. Hope rotted like a marrow. faces chilled to a plucked bird. grubbing.

putrified when it had lain three days in the long clay pit.III Live skulls. in the bitch earth. pits turned pus in filthy mounds: and where potato diggers are you still smell the running sore. Hope rotted like a marrow. (Remember. were grafted with a great sorrow. The new potato. H As the potatoes did ‘filthy mounds’ of both potatoes but also of the bodies piled up. balanced on wild higgledy skeletons scoured the land in 'forty-five. In a million wicker huts beaks of famine snipped at guts. sound as stone. grubbing. over 1 million people died during the famine) ‘you’ why has he used the second person at this point? Last two lines return to the present tense Does it suggest the immediacy of the last two lines. faces chilled to a plucked bird. Stinking potatoes fouled the land.' wolfed the blighted root and died. Mouths tightened in. A people hungering from birth. blind-eyed.this is now The knowledge of the famine is still an open wound for the people of Ireland . Millions rotted along with it. like plants. eyes died hard.

Compare the past and present as The religious imagery is repeated at the end as the shown in the poem. They take their teabreak. ‘timeless’? the ground. Why has Heaney Then. stretched on the faithless ground. scatter crusts. Thankfully breaking timeless fasts. Dead-beat. they flop Down in the ditch and take their fill. spill chosen the word They still don’t trust Libations of cold tea. No longer reliant just on potatoes for food they do still make their living form digging them .Through the tiredness of a day’s work but the image could be likened to the weak falling of the famished over a century earlier ‘flotilla’ maintains the military and sea-faring images of the first section but the crows of earlier are contrasted now with the ‘gulls’ Not in the ‘pit’ anymore and no longer hungry they can ‘take their fill’ IV Under a white flotilla of gulls The rhythm deadens. the workers stop. give offerings to appease the ‘famine god’ H mentioned earlier. White bread and tea in bright canfuls Are served for lunch.

Comparisons • A Difficult Birth / The Field-Mouse – Both poems look at the natural world and the way in which it operates. describing the beauty of the town of Inversnaid as it has not been touched by human hand. • Inversnaid – This poem takes delight in the natural world. • Patrolling Barnegat – In common with ‘At a Potato Digging’. this poem enables the reader to understand the power of the natural world and we appreciate the extent to which it can have an impact on the lives of human beings. What other poems and ideas can be used for comparison? H .

H . • Suffering – The suffering of the people of Ireland is described in detail in the poem and we understand the extent of the misery that was caused by the famine. • The Past – Heaney’s desire to make connections between the past and present is very important to the poem – a link is made between events more than a century apart.Themes • Nature – The poem deals with the natural world and the different aspects of nature can be seen in the reference to the earth as the ‘black mother’ that gives life and also the ‘bitch earth’ that is capable of inflicting great suffering.

How. How does this poem explore ideas of religion. 2. What view does the poem give of man's relationship with the earth? 4. Does the poet really think of the earth as a “bitch” and “faithless”? 5. Once again digging is used symbolically by Heaney. How does this poem challenge us not to take things for granted? 6. ritual and ceremony? H .Review 1. Explain how. Modern readers in the west may no longer have a sense of where our food comes from. does Heaney connect past and present (think about language and images used)? 3. in this poem.

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