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English Literature


For some context on Seamus Heaney, see the Context section of Storm on the Island

The Poem


Listen to the poem and watch the slideshow


A man digging in a garden

Picture courtesy of Jill Davies

Between my finger and my thumbThe squat pen rests: snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping soundWhen the spade sinks into gravelly ground:My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbedsBends low, comes up twenty years awayStooping in rhythm through potato drillsWhere he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaftAgainst the inside knee was levered firmly.He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deepTo scatter new potatoes that we pickedLoving 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 dayThan any other man on Toner's bog.Once I carried him milk in a bottleCorked sloppily with paper. He straightened upTo drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sodsOver his shoulder, going down and downFor the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slapOf soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edgeThrough living roots awaken in my head.But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumbThe squat pen rests.I'll dig with it.


potato drills (line 8) parallel ridges in the earth for growing potatoes
lug (line 10)the flattened top edge of the spade blade, against which the digger pushes with his foot
shaft (line 10)the pole between the handle and the blade
turf (line 17) a section of peat, cut from the ground for fuel

In this poem Heaney sees his father, an old man, digging the flowerbeds. He remembers how his younger, stronger father used to dig in the potato fields when Heaney was a child - and how his grandfather, before that, was an expert turf digger. Heaney knows that he has no spade to follow men like them - he is a writer, not a farmer - so will dig with his pen. He will 'dig' into his past.

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