Paternal Roots

(Picture via Getty Images)

The late Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney had a special knack for capturing the rhythmic significance of everyday moments. He also wrote some of the most beautiful poems about fathers in the 20th century.

In “A Call,” Heaney depicts a moment when a child acknowledges his father’s mortality. In “Follower,” he explores dependance between a father and a child, and the role-reversal that takes place when a once towering paternal figure ages. But arguably his most famous—and best—poem about fathers is “Digging,” published in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966). It’s a short poem (just 31 lines long), and a stylistically wonderful meditation on preserving a paternal legacy amid change.

The poem begins with the speaker prepared to write:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

It’s an important stanza to acknowledge because of its later significance, but most of the poem is devoted not to writing, but to being out in the fields. The majority of “Digging” flashes back in time, recollecting the speaker’s father, and later his grandfather, digging potatoes. 

Heaney is acutely aware of our associative tendencies, and he uses that knowledge to advance the poem. One moment the speaker sees his older father gardening “among the flowerbeds,” which triggers a memory of the latter in his younger days, “Stooping in rhythm through potato drills/Where he was digging.” Later on, that same image—the methodical tilling with a spade—reminds the speaker of an even earlier memory of his grandfather, and the way the elder in his prime “fell to right away/Nicking and slicing neatly … going down and down/For the good turf. Digging.”

One of the joys of reading Heaney’s “Digging”—and most of the other poems in Death of a Naturalist—is appreciating his unpretentious vocabulary. He uses simple language and often relies on alliteration and monosyllables (“curt cuts”, “tall tops”) to describe the natural world. It’s not glamorous imagery, but neither is spending a day in the field. 

He also uses movement to introduce more intricate ideas. Movement conveys a time jump, for example. Early on the speaker sees how his aging father “Bends low,” tending to his flowers, and then suddenly “comes up twenty years away”: He’s young and agile again, skillfully handling his shovel in the potato drills. Flashbacks in film or television often rely on more overt techniques—title cards, voiceover—making Heaney’s method not just economical and effective, but also impressive. Later on, movement alludes to mood and a point of view. Something as simple as “He straightened up” helps the reader imagine the admiring upward glance of a child toward his grandfather, looking up to him figuratively and literally.

Beyond its stylistic achievements, Heaney’s poem raises evergreen questions and fundamental frustrations about a child’s relationship to his forefathers: How can he live up to the memory of his paternal ancestors? Will he preserve or deviate from their ways?

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. (emphasis added)

According to a 2014 Census Bureau report, 22 percent of sons worked simultaneously with their fathers by age 30, and an additional 6 percent worked somewhere their father used to work by that same age. It’s easy to conceive that in different historical eras that number would have been much higher, especially given how common agriculture jobs were before industrialization. That’s largely a story of economic mobility and higher standards of living—but it’s also one of breaking away from previous ways of life, including from a sort of professional patrimony.

That’s precisely what the speaker in “Digging” reckons with. Again, Heaney doesn’t romanticize the field (“squelch and slap” doesn’t exactly warm the heart), but he recognizes that something has been lost by departing from his father’s and grandfather’s profession. The sights and sounds of digging awaken the memory of those “living roots.” He admires their lives in the field, but acknowledges he can’t replicate them—“I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”—with his own line of work. Not exactly, at least.

In recent years, many on the right have lamented a loss of heritage resulting from modernity’s disruptions, from an elite economy less reliant on manual labor to rootless “Anywheres” detached from community ties. Heaney acknowledges a loss, but he doesn’t end there. Immediately after the stanza above, the poem concludes with a modified version of its opening:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

“Digging” doesn’t delve into why the speaker traded a spade for a pen, why he writes instead of digs. But the last stanza suggests that he refuses to feel resigned over the switch. Quite the contrary. The speaker seems ready to honor his father and grandfather through his own form of digging, one that has adapted to changing times. He deviates from his father and grandfather—but he doesn’t dismiss them.

Heaney’s poem is a moving retrospective of a child’s admiration for the men in his life. It cultivates a desire not merely to follow and imitate our own paternal living roots, but to dig deep and seek creative ways to honor them.

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