Revison notes on the key themes and comparisons in Seamus Heaney poems

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Key themes and comparative quotes for each poem        

Digging – identity, admiration, hardwork, childhood and memory

Techniques used in digging

  1. Enjambment - It is defined as a thought or  that does not come to an end at a ; instead, it moves over the next line. For example,

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.”

  1. :  is used to make readers perceive things involving their five
  2. senses. For example, “Between my finger and my thumb”, “The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft” and “The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap.”
  3. :  is the  of vowel sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /e/ in “The squat pen rests; snug as a gun” and the sound of /ea/ in “Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods”.
  4. :  is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /l/ in “The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap” and the sound of /ng/ in “Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods.”
  5. :  is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line in quick successions. For example, the sound of /t/ in “He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep” and the sound of /c/ in “Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge”.
  6. :  means to use  to signify ideas and qualities, giving them symbolic meanings that are different from the literal meanings. “Digging” symbolizes tradition.
  7. : It is a  in which an implied  is made between the  that are different in nature using as or like. For example, “The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. Here the pen is compared to a gun. Though not physically, a pen or a written word can also hurt people.
  8. Hyperbole – exaggeration of text

Poetic devices used in the poem

Repetition – between my finger and my thumb my squat pen rests

Potentially free verse with no strict rhyme used

Key words instead of this shows

  • Illustrates
  • Demonstrates
  • Elucidates
  • Epitomises
  • Highlights
  • Depicts
  • Conveys


Digging key quotes

The poem is about heaneys admiration for paternal figures and farming heritage.

  • Memories to inform identity but courage to find own path/future

“between my finger and my thumb; the squat pen rests snug as a gun” – “my” personal pronoun referencing speakers own personal experience. Written as rhyming couplet. Writing acts as a weapon. Also use of a similie.

Stanza 3 – “till his straining rump among the flowerbeds” – admiration for and hard work he puts in. adverb “straining” suggests strenuous work Heaneys father puts into his farming.

Stanza 5 – “by god the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man” – by god is colloquial language. “old man” suggests affection. Shows the pride dignigty Heaney has. “Just like his old man”

Stanza 6 – “to drink it then fell to right away” – hard work and solid work ethic

“through living roots awaken In my head but ive no spade to follow men like them” -  negative imagery traditions / livelihoods destroyed. Disappointment in not having skill like his family.

Seeing his father (now old) “straining” to dig “flowerbeds”, the poet recalls him in his prime, digging “potato drills”. And even earlier, he remembers his grandfather, digging peat. He cannot match “men like them” with a spade, but he sees that the pen is (for him) mightier, and with it he will dig into his past and celebrate them

Use of agricultural terms such as “shaft”

The onomatopoeia (where the sound resembles or suggests meaning) is obvious in “rasping”, “gravelly”, “sloppily”, “squelch” and “slap”.

There is a central extended metaphor of digging and roots, which shows how the poet, in his writing, is getting back to his own roots (his identity, and where his family comes from). The poem begins almost as it ends, but only at the end is the writer's pen seen as a weapon for digging.

Follower key quotes – admiration identity physical labour

Recalls heaneys childhood memories on the farm he grow up on, working in the fields trying to help his father and admiring his strength. Links with HERITAGE AND IDENTITY as he has decided to take a different path then his father. Towards end of poem there is reversal of roles.

Context – about his irish traditional farming from his childhood about his rural life with his family


“my father worked with a horse plugh” - Instantly sets up the focus of the poem onto his father, and the possessive ‘my’ centres the poem around their relationship. ‘ By mentioning the ‘horse-plough’, readers are being introduced to the farming environment the poem is set in.

full sail strung” -      Heaney compares his father's shoulders to a sail on a boat / ship, which emphasises how much he admires his power.


“without breaking” - Establishing his father’s aptitude for and experience with farming, to emphasise his own feelings of displacement in the farm environment when trying to establish his own identity

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“ I stumbled in his hob nailed wake” - Symbolic of the ‘family footsteps’ Heaney is being expected to follow, especially as the oldest of nine children. ”Stumbled” implies the uncertainties Heaney has about his ability to take the same path as his father, and may also imply the innocence and inexperience he has due to his young age, further planting the poem in the realm of childhood memories. The plosive sounds of “stumbled” and “hob” replicates the jittering, untrained movements of Heaney’s younger self and contrast with the smooth sibilance used to describe heaneys father and his ...

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