Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work they go! This poem deals a lot with men (of three generations), their work, and their tools. But before you write this one off as a poem for manly men and no one else, let's take a moment to think about what those tools might mean. The repeated references to the spade and shovel, and all the hard work that goes into putting those tools to use, allow Heaney to emphasize the value of manual labor. Our speaker speaks of his dad and grandpa's work with admiration and pride.
But he has pride in his own work, and his own tool, too. The speaker uses a pen to dig, because he knows he has no skill with a spade. He plays to his strengths and finds value in his own work, even though it's not quite as physical as that of his elders. But hey, honest work is honest work, and a pen's just as good for digging as a spade. It just might uncover something other than a potato.
- Lines 1-2: The first image in the poem is a tool, specifically the writer's tool (a pen). Heaney uses a clever, though strange, simile comparing the pen to a gun. What is he trying to make us think of right away? That the pen is a mighty weapon, capable of powerful acts? Or that the pen can be used for violence? Typically, we associate pens with peaceful, even dull, action. For the opening of this poem, though, Heaney wants to shake things up.
- Line 4: Tool number 2 is the spade (or shovel) that his father uses for gardening. The very sound of the spade cutting into the ground reminds the speaker of watching his father work in the potato fields, and it sends him reeling into a vivid memory. This is when we realize that this small tool has a big effect on our speaker.
- Line 8: Tool number 3 is still a spade, but this one's being used for planting and harvesting potatoes instead of flowers.
- Lines 10-11: This father is quite the expert when it comes to a spade. His hard-working nature comes to life when he uses it, and the speaker definitely notices this and admires it very much.
- Lines 15-16: Looks like the tricks of the trade run in the family. Not only was the father good at digging, but so was the grandfather. He knew how to "handle a spade" as well. The speaker associates the spade with hard work, sure, but it's also strongly connected to the men in his family. There seems to be a lot of symbolic significance in these tools because the more we read about them, the more we notice their connection to family, hard work, and masculinity.
- Line 28: The speaker comes right out and says it – he's nothing like his father and grandfather. Literally, this just means that he's not a digger, so he doesn't use the same tools. But figuratively, it could hint that he's lesser in his own eyes because he doesn't do the hard, manual work that all the other men in his family before him have done.
- Lines 29-31: The end of the poem is the speaker's "however" moment. Sure, he doesn't exactly follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps. However, he still knows how to work hard and "dig" just like them. In other words, his tool is different, but his purpose is the same. The pen, though it's not a shovel, could still be a symbol of family, hard work, and masculinity, because it's really the same as a shovel, just in a new form.