Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
- Our speaker is reaching even further back into the family history to the time when his grandfather dug for turf, and evidently, was very good at it. Is there anything these men can't do?
- A bog is a patch of wet, muddy ground, covered in peat, or turf, which forms the grassy top layer. The peat makes for a great fuel and fertilizer, so Irishmen used to (and some still do) harvest the peat by cutting it from the bog and saving it for later use.
- What's so awesome about these lines is Heaney's mention of a place called "Toner's bog." Of course we haven't heard of it, and for all we know, it's entirely made up. But it's a specific place, a local place (however make believe) and his mention of it gives the poem an "insider" feel. In other words, the speaker seems to be addressing those in the know, or people who are familiar with the traditions of potato farming and peat harvesting. It's as if we, too, are part of this Irish community and history. Cool, huh? (More on the whole Irish thing in "Setting.")
- Plus, note that the grandfather is digging neither for flowers nor for potatoes. He's digging for peat. So instead of decoration or food, he's digging for fuel. Interesting.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
- Our speaker enters the scene with his grandfather now, and he's probably quite young in this memory. It looks like the speaker takes him fresh milk with paper shoved in the top as a stopper while his grandfather works in the bog, and his grandfather takes a brief break from all his hard work to have a sip.
- What's up with the paper cork? Have you ever heard of that? Well, for one thing, this tells us that this is an old, old memory. It's from a long time ago, when something like a paper cork wasn't unheard of.
- Plus, if you think about it, it creates a small, subtle connection between the grandfather's work (peat harvesting), and the work our speaker ends up doing (writing). It's a sneak peek into the future of the young boy's life, and what he has to contribute to this tradition of work. (More on this later in the poem.)
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
- Got milk? The grandfather certainly does. But he only allows himself a quick break before getting right back to business.
- Heaney describes how he cuts into the ground with his spade – "nicking and slicing neatly." It seems as though it's not just hard labor, but takes a good amount of technique, too. The grandfather's technique and efficiency are similar to what we saw from the father earlier in the poem.
- Also, check out how this line is enjambed from the one before it. That means that there's no break between the two lines: it's all one, continuous phrase, separated only by a line break. It's a little tricky because the line before ("He straightened up") seems like it could stand on its own. But here we have the rest of the thought. Very tricky, Mr. Heaney.
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
- Jumping right from lines 22-23, we see the grandfather continuing to toil away in Toner's bog, chucking the turf over his shoulder as he goes. The "good turf" he's after is the nutrient rich stuff that's good for using as fuel or fertilizer.
- Check out the way Heaney puts it: "down and down…Digging." His phrasing sort of reenacts the steady and difficult process. And just in case you didn't notice, the grandfather is digging. Always digging.
- Both the father and the grandfather seem to be pretty hard-working, tough men, and these lines continue to emphasize that fact by calling our attention to the grandfather's constant effort.