Heaney: Digging and the search for ‘the good turf’.

The collection Death of a Naturalist opens with the poem Heaney called a ‘strength giver’: Digging. If Personal Helicon summarises the ideas of the collection, it is this poem which asserts Heaney’s decision to honour the authenticity and labour of his forebears, not by the rural tasks so common in rural Ireland -Peat Digging and Potato Gathering, but by an equally arduous intellectual task: becoming a poet and in his own way joining his grandfather in seeking the ‘good turf’. The poem, then, creates a metaphorical link between physically digging down in search of ‘truth’ (also seen in poems like Helicon with its wells) and intellectually stripping thoughts and ideas down to their core to render them in poetry.

The poem feels as though there is an iambic tread throughout, but as we read these poems, Heaney’s suggestion that the form owes more to his ‘phonetic grunting of S. Derry’ rather than to ‘iambic correctness from a book’ sems to be a warning to heed. Heaney’s metre is not regular and the variety of metrical feet and use of punctuation contribute to a feeling of hearing the vernacular being spoken directly to the reader. The opening couple is a case in point, perhaps – a jaunty iambic tetrameter is followed in enjambment by a mixture of iamb, spondee, a trochee and iamb to conclude:

Between/ my fing/er and/ my thumb/

The squat/ pen rests;/ snug as /a gun.

The four continuous stresses in line 2 give such a weight to the pen and such a confidence to the idea being delivered. The caesura forces a break which allows the reader to recgonise the sensous nature of the sibilance at the start of ‘snug’ without any idea of eliding the two Ss in any way. Heaney has realised the pleasure in the action he is describing.  The simile is brilliant – driven by the assonance of the ‘uh’ sound, Heaney commented that he was ‘responding to an entirely phonetic prompt… a kind of sonic chain dictated by the inner ear’ rather than any overt reference to the troubles (still in the future) or to his role as the literary equivalent of the IRA, a role which he never took on despite his Catholic faith and his refusal to be treated as a British subject; he also refused to be driven into overt political stances by Nationalists. Rather he allows the idea of proximity to WW2 and the profusion of TV programmes in which firearms are wielded whether war or police drama… nevertheless, the rich vein of military imagery in these poems (Trout has enough on its own to make this point) establish the idea of conflict, great or small, as central to his writing.


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.


The Poem is broken into a number of stanzas of varying length almost as though Heaney is tracking the thought processes of a short period of time in the upper bedroom of the house the family lived in, The Wood’ in Co. Derry. He hears his father digging and the process of mining memory and thought begins for the 25 year old poet.

The framing of the poem within the lines quoted establishes a journey from consideration, to decision. At the end of the poem, the pen still ‘rests’ suggesting an ease and comfort within his role, but the second line ends abruptly as a decision is made. In the direct final line, the stress falls solely on the word ‘dig’ and the path has been laid. The collection sees the results of these first diggings.

The poem is full of assonance and alliteration creating onomatopoieia and acting as the pathway down into the mind of the poet. The narrative begins in stanza 2 as he hears the ‘rasping’ and the harsh yet soft ‘g’ sounds of the ‘gravelly ground’, which he knows is his father doing what he has always done; digging. Heaney foregrounds his Father at the start of the line to establish the idea of heritage and his momentous decision to move away from the farm. Stanza 2 moves seamlessly into stanza 3 through enjambment which captures the sense of time shift as he sees his father ‘twenty years away’ still digging. It is unclear whether this is in the past or the future and a sense of continuity is established. His father is identified by his ‘straining rump’ which ‘stoops in rhythm’, identifying the work rather than the man. In none of these poems do we find Heaney describing his parents in a manner other than this -anonymous with overt sentimentality completely excised- the work hard and they mourn or grieve. There is nothing soft here – he is digging for truth not storytelling.

As Heaney takes time to explore the mechanics of the action of digging, the language becomes almost technical, softened only by the verb ‘nestled’ suggesting that this life was the only natural life for his father. Also the spade has a ‘bright edge’, presumably sharpened and cleaned, and is viewed with the pride a boy might show for the sword wielded by a knight-at-arms. He establishes his part in this activity, now seen as 20 years in the past as ‘we’ picked the potatoes -his heritage as an Irish boy becoming clear in the placement of ‘loving’ in the final line of the stanza.

At this point he is struck by recognition of wonder: the two lines of stanza 5, the second seemingly shortened by his pause to consider the impact of the recognition of what he is saying.  The ejaculatory ‘By God’ is immediately humanised by the familiar tone of ‘the old man’, an epithet which is passed effortlessly back to the grandfather in this tale.

There is pride in his statement at the beginning of stanza 6 -it almost reads as a challenge to disbelievers and whilst Toner’s Bog might only be a local landmark, the message is clear; these men were special and for a child to carry out the simple task of passing milk – ‘corked sloppily with paper’ suggesting a small detail of the life led on the farm, the paper hurriedly stuffed into the bottle in the absence of any formal lid – was to be handing a present to a giant. We read that the grandfather does not speak (communication seems to be an issue in these poems – in Mid Term Break there is no verbal communication at all within the family), but ‘straightened up/ to drink it, then fell to right away/ nicking and slicing… The continued enjambment turns this into seamless movement, almost mechanical, yet the delicacy of the verbs of action also convey the skill and pride taken by this man working in the bog. The work is hard (heaving), yet he shirks none as he goes ‘down and down’ towards the ‘good turf’ – the prize sought by Heaney: the truth, the authentic, his own good turf.

As he recalls his grandfather the tone slips slightly from this sense of pride to a more realistic telling, supported by the onomatopoieia of ‘squelch and slap’ and the reference to potato mould – the first passing reference to an idea which permeates other poems such as Blackberry Picking – the closeness of all to rot and decay.. He is aware of the relationship between life and death – the living roots are severed in order to remove the material which will give warmth to the home. He introduces his awakening by the monosyllable at the beginning of the last line in stanza 7. At this stage, ‘but’ merely introduces a contradiction in this line of pentameter. Presumably the syllable is intended to be stressed presenting the message ‘but I’ve’ as a spondee to open the line in which the iambic tread carries the message excitedly towards the last stanza.

The poem comes full circle, and now the message is clear. Heaney has declared his momentous decision to break with generations of heritage which links the poems in the set, through life on the farm (The Barn, Early Purges), respect for ones’ elders (The Follower), the plight of the Irish in the famine (At a potato digging, Eliza), whilst allowing to explore his journey from innocence to experience through the medium of fears overcome (An advancement of learning) and developing maturity (Twice shy, Personal Helicon).