Symbols in Digging by Seamus Heaney

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In the poem “Digging”, Seamus Heaney explores the differences between generations of men in his family through retracing the past. It is a poem of love and respect for the achievements of his father and grandfather as a digger, but at the same time comparing the traditional occupation to his own way of “digging” as a writer. Heaney expresses a sense of isolation and resemblance he feels toward his family by using significant symbols throughout the poem. In the first stanza, Heaney introduces the readers to his pen, which he is content to hold as he finds a sense of belonging and comfort. The pen is described as a weapon, “snug as a gun” (2), this gives the impression that the pen fits naturally in his hands and symbolizes a form of protection from the criticisms about his choice of being a writer. His decision creates a form barrier or isolation between Heaney and his father, as implied when Heaney observes his father digging through a window. The plane of glass stands in as a physical separation between father and son, yet it also corresponds to the psychological barrier that built up in their relationship when Heaney decides to follow his dream as a writer. In order to do so, he must break away from the family’s traditional means of earning a living, just like how a spade makes a “curt cuts/through living roots”(26-27). Even though Heaney chooses not to become a digger, he still finds a sense of resemblance between the two polar occupations. Heaney recognizes that his skill with a pen is compatible to his forefathers’ skill with a spade, as he suggests his pen symbolizes a spade to which he can “dig with it”(31). Heaney is, in his form of digging, always searching for topics or good materials that can make his pieces unique and meaningful, just like how his grandfather continued “going down and down for the good turf” as he digs (23-24).
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