Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
- These lines are the first half of a sentence that will be completed in line 27, so for now, let's just think of them as a list. But of what?
- Of the smells and sounds of digging for potatoes and peat – that's what. He brings up the smell of potato mold, the sounds of the peat bog, and the cuts of the spade as it digs down into the earth.
- Now that we've got that down, what else do we notice about these lines more specifically?
- For one thing, it's interesting to say that a smell is cold, because we usually associate hot or cold with our touch sense. But still, this mixing of our smelling and feeling senses doesn't seem to be too far of a reach. For example, when it's about to snow, there's a smell in the air that you could associate with coldness. The smell of fire might also bring up a feeling of warmth. In this case, for the speaker, the potato mould (mold) is a cold smell, probably because it's pretty darn cold in Ireland.
- So overall, we've got a lot of senses going on here. Our speaker is making use of sight, smell, sound, and touch imagery to give us a sense of how this memory makes him feel.
- Diving into the details a bit more, we see that these lines just sound really cool, too. First, we have the internal rhyme of "cold" and "mould" – what does that do to the lines?
- And don't forget the awesome alliteration throughout and the crazy use of onomatopoeia. We can just hear the "squelch" of the peat and the "curt cuts" into the ground. So cool.
Through living roots awaken in my head.
- All the things he just listed in lines 25-26 pop up in his head. That sounds simple enough – after all, he's watching his father dig, so why not remember these things? But what's the deal with the phrase at the beginning of the line – "through living roots"?
- As it turns out, this line has a whole lot more going on below the surface (pun intended). Of course he's talking literally about the roots of a plant – flowers, potatoes, etc. But you could also definitely read "roots" to mean the roots the speaker has to his father and grandfather's work – as in origins, or heredity, or tradition. They are "living roots" because the memories are alive in him, our speaker, as he watches his father in the flower bed.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
- Key line alert! Up until now, we've been reading about the father and the grandfather and all their tireless digging. But here, we turn in a different direction.
- Based on how much he admires his father and grandfather, it would be easy for us to assume that the speaker would follow in their footsteps and become a digger, too.
- But alas, that's not to be. The speaker, we learn isn't like his father or his grandfather because he doesn't have the proper tool for digging. It's all in the tools, it turns out. So without a spade, our speaker is not a potato farmer or a peat harvester. He's something different entirely.
- While at first we thought our speaker was a part of his family's tradition, we're now seeing him as a bit of a black sheep, or outsider. But we're still not sure why.