Seamus Heaney – ‘at a Potato Digging’

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Seamus Heaney – ‘At a Potato Digging’
• Context • • The poem deals with two different potato harvests. One is the harvest from the present day that goes successfully and which delivers a rich crop. The second potato harvest looks back to the famine of 1845 when the crop failed and many people starved. Whilst the famine is no longer a threat, its ongoing fear remains and this can be seen in the use of religious language throughout the poem. For example, the bowed heads of the potato pickers suggest the desire to respect the gods and show them respect. The poem begins with Heaney describing workers in a potato field in Ireland. They follow a machine that turns up the crop and they put these into a basket and then store them. The second section of the poem involves the healthy potatoes being described. The third section writes about the famine of the past. Fungus destroyed the entire crop of potatoes and this happened for three consecutive years. Ireland was devastated and there were many deaths with people being forced to flee Ireland. In the final section of the poem, Heaney returns to the first section of the poem – Ireland in the 1960s at lunchtime. The workers sit happily, with food to eat. The rhythm of the poem changes in the third section of the poem. This is well suited to the changing subject matter of this part of the poem. Connections are established between each of the sections – the potatoes that are compared to skulls in section two, link to the literal skeletons of section three. The use of religious imagery in the poem is a means of helping the reader to understand the importance of the potato harvest to the people of Ireland.

• Summary Structure / Style • •



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• Language • •

Even in the parts of the poem that deal with the present when food is plentiful, there are suggestions of the past famine. For example, the fingers that go ‘dead in the cold’. The language of the third section helps the reader to understand the negative impact of the famine through words such as ‘blighted’, ‘putrefied’, ‘rotted’ and ‘stinking’. Vivid language is used throughout the poem and this is in order for the reader to visualise the situation.

• Themes

• •

Nature – The poem deals with the natural world and the different aspects of nature can be seen in the reference to the earth as the ‘black mother’ that gives life and also the ‘bitch earth’ that is capable of inflicting great suffering. Suffering – The suffering of the people of Ireland is described in detail in the poem and we understand the extent of the misery that was caused by the famine. The Past – Heaney’s desire to make connections between the past and present is very important to the poem – a link is made between events more than a century apart. A Difficult Birth / The Field-Mouse – Both poems look at the natural world and the way in which it operates. Inversnaid – This poem takes delight in the natural world, describing the beauty of the town of Inversnaid as it has not been touched by human hand. Patrolling Barnegat – In common with ‘At a Potato Digging’, this poem enables the reader to understand the power of the natural world and we appreciate the extent to which it can have an impact on the lives of human beings.

• Links • •

Seamus Heaney – ‘Follower’
• Context • • This is one of several poems in the collection in which Heaney draws upon his own memories of the past. Heaney remembers being a boy and his experiences of following his father around the farm as he ploughed the field. In common with ‘Digging’, the affection of the poet for his father is clear. Another connection between the two poems would come from the fact that in each, the expertise of the father in working the land is very apparent. During the first three stanzas of the poem, the poet recalls his father working the fields. What comes across very clearly from these recollections, is that the father was highly skilled. The poet goes on to describe how he used to...
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