Seamus Heaney’s poems “Digging” and “The Forge” demonstrate how he perceives his purpose as a writer in comparison to farming and blacksmithing. His first poem, “Digging” was Heaney’s debut to the world of poetry. He had begun to write poetry in 1962, but “Digging” was the first poem he officially published. This poem highlights Heaney’s relationship with his father and grandfather, contrasting his profession from theirs. He describes them as hard-working farmers, which he is not and could never be due to his love of writing.
The word “digging” itself parallels major themes in the poem regarding family tradition, memories, and the acceptance of his vocation. This poem shows Heaney’s struggle with recognizing if his identity as a poet is honorable and how that reflects on his family history. Whereas “The Forge” is published in Seamus Heaney’s second volume of poetry.
Similar to “Digging”, “The Forge” explores Heaney’s admiration for blue collar workers. Through his writing, Heaney describes a local blacksmith’s view of progression, and how once the forge was an essential part of Irish rural life. In parallel to “Digging”, the blacksmith recollects how once farmers explicitly used the services of the blacksmith to repair and make ploughs and other farm instruments while also forging shoes for their horses. These two poems are reflections of Heaney’s role as a poet and how he conceives his profession in relation to other kinds of work, like farming and blacksmithing.The body of Heaney’s poem “Digging” reflects his memories of the past. Though the poem begins in present tense with Heaney putting pen to paper and watching his father dig for potatoes in the garden outside, the poem swiftly changes to past tense when he remembers his father and grandfather working together in the same garden. Heaney begins “Digging” with an earlier memory of his father digging for potatoes, then recalls another later memory of his grandfather cutting turf, this identifies with Heaney’s view of family tradition. He explains that his hard work is not done with a shovel, but a pen, and wonders if that is the right decision for his family.
Heaney’s reminiscence of memories about his ancestors mirrors how fond he is of them, he even recollects helping the two of them as a child by picking up the farmed potatoes and bringing milk to his grandfather while he worked (line 13-14, 19). Furthermore, Heaney’s admiration for his family is evident when he writes, “By God, the old man could handle a spade / Just like his old man,” considering their skillful profession (lines 15-16). By writing about these memories, Heaney is emulating the traditions of his family. This helps Heaney to indicate why he struggles with stepping away from his family tradition and stepping toward a different life path as a poet. By writing this poem, Heaney must confront his change in family tradition. These detailed and heartfelt memories help Heaney to identify his removal from his father’s lifestyle and he has, “no spade to follow men like them,” this statement is Heaney acknowledging that he will never pick the shovel to farm like his father and grandfather did before him, and his diction shows that he is depressed by this realization (line 28).
This sadness is especially seen when he incorporates a powerful memory of “the cold smell of potato mould” to enhance the reader’s connection with Heaney’s memory (line 25) . Heaney’s removal from his family tradition leaves him to feel out of place, as if he were disconnected from them. Though Heaney wants to continue the family legacy, he feels as though he has a different calling by “digging” with his pen. “Digging” honors and even praises the farmer’s work, and Heaney’s poem is an acceptance that he will never be a part of that tradition.
As depicted in Heaney’s “The Forge,” the business was owned and worked by a local blacksmith and it had been handed down to him by his father before him, paralleling the passing down of profession in “Digging”. Therefore, Heaney has respect for what he observes of the mysterious profession at the local forge. As he writes “The Forge,” he applies the essence of the blacksmith as an extended analogy for his personal artistic development as he mirrors in “Digging” to identify his vocation as a poet. The sonnet is read as an elegy to the past, and a testament to the replacement of the hardworking blacksmith with the conveyor belt of industrialism. The anvil mentioned in the sonnet is an analogy to an altar, and the blacksmith is working with “real iron”, which the real world of 1969 was beginning to get rid of, as mass construction of cars and tractors began to undermine the craft of blacksmithing (line 14).
Additionally, one of the many other ways of interpreting this poem, is the blacksmith persona being compared to the creative role of the poet as one who artfully forges “himself in shape and music,”, opens “doors into the dark,” and who “grunts” with the art of fashioning his poems (line 9, 1, 13). Especially since the blacksmith was once one of the most important members of the agricultural community. Heaney’s version of the blacksmith symbolizes Vulcan, the Roman God of blacksmithing and the forge.
Heaney takes qualities from the perception of Vulcan in that he doesn’t speak, he only “grunts”, and is described as “leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,” (line 10). He emulates the god-like powers, as the blacksmith is able “to beat real iron out” (line 14). This detailed description of the blacksmith allows the reader to understand a literal interpretation about a simple man whose job is dwindling as the world flourishes around him. While simultaneously allowing the reader to grasp those deeper images of creativity and artistry in the poem.The symbolism in “Digging” is grounded on the metaphor of Heaney’s pen being a shovel.
As mentioned earlier, Heaney’s purpose of writing this poem is to accept that he is breaking away from the tradition of his family and to justify his transition to poetry as he cuts his “live roots” (line 27). Through his shovel to pen metaphor, Heaney implies that he can continue the family tradition of digging by using a different tool. Heaney’s artful usage of smell and touch in his memories gives the reader the power of understanding how Heaney views the difference between his vocation and his family’s traditional vocation. Heaney uses another literary device in his first two lines, “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun” (lines 1-2). This simile compares his pen to a gun, which gives reason to his decision to be a poet. The gun indicates the power that writing has as a profession, Heaney feels that the power of words can be a forceful and violent mode of expressing oneself. Another way of interpreting this simile of comparing Heaney’s pen to a gun, regards his stance regarding the turmoil of Ireland during this time.
By making the comparisons between a shovel, a gun, and a pen, Heaney is also choosing between farming work, violence, and writing. This lingering choice relates back to his struggle with accepting identity. The first stanza of “Digging” contains the simile of a gun which is also mimicked in the last stanza, but the gun is not mentioned a second time identifying Heaney’s choice of non-violence through poetry and his departure from family tradition.
Like digging, Heaney uses the continued analogy of the forge as a parallel of the creativity of a poet. He uses the blacksmith’s anvil simile “horned as a unicorn” to compare the tool he uses to the mythical creature, the unicorn (line 7). Heaney also uses a slick metaphor to parallel the blacksmith’s anvil to an altar. This juxtaposes the poet’s devotion to his creative writings to religious worship. There is also a sharp contrast made between the “clatter of hoofs” and “traffic .
. flashing in rows” being the old versus the new (lines 11-12). “Digging” and “The Forge” are Heaney’s poetic way of informing his readers of his respect for the skill and craft displayed by hard working blue-collar types like his father, grandfather, and the blacksmith. Though he admires these professions, through these poems Heaney accepts that he will not be able to execute the hard work farmers and blacksmiths do every day. He describes how his father and grandfather have imprinted a positive influence with memories of sight, smell, and touch to further his own version of digging. By comparing the pen to a shovel, a gun, and an anvil, Heaney highlights the many ways one can contribute to society through written word.
Though Heaney chooses to reject the purpose of writing out of aggression by comparing his pen to a gun, and accepts that his pen will serve as the better instrument to further his purpose, as his grandfather and father did with potatoes and as the blacksmith with forging. Overall, Heaney’s poem emulates the path he takes by accepting his identity as different from blue-collar professions and moving forward as a poet, though he is not physically digging or forging, through his writing.