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Digging

Digging

by Seamus Heaney

Analysis: Form and Meter

Free Verse

Free verse is a poetic style that lacks a regular meter or rhyme scheme. We know what you're thinking, though: "Shmoop, how can you say there's no rhyme scheme here?" And you're right, there is tons of rhyme in this poem. But because there's no rhyme scheme, or repeating patterns of rhymes at the end of the line, this one's free verse all the way, right?

Right. Except… wait a minute. There are a few places where it definitely sounds like Heaney's falling into some sort of meter. Take these two lines:

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
(3-4)

For starters, that first line is totally dactylic tetrameter. Don't be scared, that just means that it has four (that's the "tetra") DUM-da-da (that's the "dactyl") sounds – almost. So it reads like this:

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM.

So yeah, that sounds pretty metered to us. Not to mention, when you read these two lines, one after the other, they sound quite similar although the words are different. That's because they're similar in length, have similar rhythms, and rhyme at the end. But just when you're settling into this pattern, Heaney yanks you right out of it with, "My father, digging. I look down." (5).

That line sounds totally different, right? That's because it is. It's almost as if Heaney wants to lull you into a sing-songy, safe sense of meter, and then remind you at the last second – Nope! This is a free verse poem. Such shifts totally play with our reading of the poem. They wake us up and make us pay attention to whatever line is breaking the pattern (in this case line 5). It's a clever, subtle trick, and Heaney makes really great use of it.

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