Seamus Heaney`S Digging The Modernist theme of mechanization, brought on by the beginning of World War I and the technological revolution of the era, manifests itself powerfully and completely in the language of Seamus Heaneys first poem, Digging. From various literary devices, as well as graphic imagery the mechanization of the human spirit comes to life in the form of his father, and grandfather. The past and present become one, with the common bond the honest work of the Irish poor. In his own way, and with his own pen, Heaney develops the idea of mechanized men who, through the drudgery and repetition of their lives, create a life for them and their families, taking pride in their work, and acceptance of their fate. He develops seamlessly the idea of a man-machine, a hybrid of automation and human, married by toil and tool.
Likewise, Heaney writes this as a way to tie himself to his ancestors in the British Isles, illustrating the power that they wielded with shovel and sweat, making their contribution no less enlightened than his own. In his first poem, Heaney develops the image of mechanization and automation that follows the poor of his country, through graphic imagery, sound, and literary mastery. Heaneys imagery throughout the poem echoes the automation of the workers, illustrating the type of work that they do as something that could be done by machinery. Titling the piece Digging immediately highlights for the reader the verbal connotation of the work, and puts the theme of work, and of manual labor into the limelight. As well, Heaneys use of the word gun to describe his “squat pen” in line 2 places the emphasis on machinery allowing a comparison of the human condition to present technology. This theme continues throughout the poem, as Heaney likens his fathers act of digging to that of a machine, “as his father nestled on the lug, the shaft/Against the inside knee was levered firmly.” (ll.10-11) These words take the labor out of the realm of man, by using mechanical terms to describe the marriage of shovel and man, creating an altogether different image of a type of robot tearing up sod.
While he describes this straining rump, Heaney takes this man out of the realm of men, and into a realm of manufactured workers, a realm of repetition, a realm of stooping workers, their humanity set aside to finish the job at hand. However, while Heaney describes the toil of his father, he also ties it to the alike labor of a past generation, namely his grandfathers, “used to nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods/Over his shoulder.”(22-23) This juxtaposition of past and present illustrates the monotony of the work involved, and how things take time to change. Heaney creates the transition between his father and grandfather in a two-line stanza that highlights the pride of these men, and how their automation gave cause for praise from their descendant, Heaney. Their legacy of hard work, however mechanized, illustrates the value placed on labor in their society. While Heaney creates the idea of men-machines through visual images and parts, he also creates a very auditory world, one that echoes the act of a factory, or a piece of farm machinery.
From the first stanza, with its “clean rasping sound,” the readers ear can almost hear the whir of a lawn mower, or something of that nature, cutting and slicing. (3) The rhythm of Heaneys fathers digging highlights the monotony of the act, the incessant meter of his practiced spade. This coincides with the sounds in the prior stanza, as the authors first recollection is an auditory one. Later in the poem, “the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat”, continues the idea of a machine chugging away at the turf, creating again the essence of a machine oblivious to the conditions of the work men. (25-26) Heaneys workers are extremely vivid, both physically and mentally, even after so many years, and the trials and hardships that they endure, day in and day out, add to the essence of their existence, one that lends acceptance to the fact that they are somewhat more than men, that their labor, however menial, is somewhat mechanized, somewhat heroic, and altogether driven by a pride and ethic valued among their people. While Heaney emphasizes the automation of their existence and the tediousness of their work, he still illustrates their humanity with the same type of imagery that likens them to machines.
On lines 15-16, Heaney uses the phrase, “By God”, something that emphasizes their humanity, for the words “old man” are also used in these lines, perhaps to create the idea of man in the image of God–something that reminds the reader of the essence of mankind, and that even though these men may become mechanized in their labor, nevertheless they retain that very core of their being that makes them men, something that no amount of work can drive out. This two line stanza that ties grandfather to father highlights the faith of this tough people, one untainted by the hard work that is the signature of their existence. Along with his reference to God, to show his awe, and disbelief at the skill of his forebears, Heaney also emphasizes their humanity, when he carried his grandfather’s “milk in a bottle/Corked sloppily with paper.” (19-20) This moment, where his grandfather gives in to human needs, reiterates the fact that while he may be sublimating his humanity when he is “nicking and slicing”, he is nonetheless still a man, needing nourishment–though the image is equally potent as a machine, perhaps a lawn mower, refueling. This double meaning connects Heaneys idea of men-machines nicely, creating the ideal of a hybrid race, one that can drive down all but the base urges of man to get the job done, day in and day out. Seamus Heaney finally ties himself to the legacy of his father and grandfather in the final stanzas.
While he cannot pick up a “spade to follow men like them”, nevertheless, he is able to dig with his “squat pen.” (28-30) This ties him to his relatives, though twenty years removed, and say something about the nature of work in general. In essence, Heaney is saying that any type of labor done causes man to sublimate his humanity, in such a way that each and every man has the mechanical side of a manual laborer. Poetry takes on the same idea of harvesting potatoes, the treasure of Heaneys lavish island. Thus, the tone of this work lends an almost enlightened tone to the essence of these men-machine, in the sense that through their work, they create a poetic dance of sight and sound, one that visually and audibly reflects that of a machine, working day after day in monotony. Thus, Heaney finds beauty in the commonplace, and brings it out in his Digging, creating with his “squat pen”, as if it were a spade, and not a gun, as in line 2, as active as his imagination, not resting in the least, as in the first stanza. Seamus Heaney makes a potent statement about his heritage, and his work, in his first poem of his first book.
His forebears, tough as the peat that they cut, take on the image of machines, through repetition and monotony, such that their visual image in his mind, and their sounds echoing in his ears, combine to create his hybrid of man and machine, a marriage recognized by God in its potency. Heaney juxtaposes their images to illustrate the constancy of their hard work, and ties them to him to create the cycle that his heritage lives and works in, active and proud. Through Digging, Heaney captures the essence of the Irish people, a people that works hard, tough, proud, and persistent, unable to be swayed by circumstances not under their control. Theirs is a plight of survival, of walking the fine line between man and machine to survive. Theirs is the plight of the Irish, caught eloquently by the “squat pen” of poet Seamus Heaney.