Study Guide

Digging Strength and Skill

By Seamus Heaney

Strength and Skill

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: (4)

Right away, Heaney dives in to talk about the difficult labor of digging.

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds (6)

The word "straining" in this line shows us how hard his father was working in the garden. Perhaps things no longer come so easy to his dad.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly. (10-11)

Here, our speaker's dad is working in the potato fields, and from the word "firmly" we can see that he has a skilled grasp on his tools.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep (12)

It's pretty impressive how Heaney can make all this digging so beautiful. After all, it's totally dirty work. But his imagery makes it seem downright lovely.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man. (15-16)

Heaney explicitly states that his father was super-skilled at digging, and so was his grandfather. It seems like a source of awe for our speaker – like he's totally impressed.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog. (17-18)

What exactly is cutting turf, anyway? Check out this video to find out more.

[…] then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down (21-23)

This snippet shows how strong the speaker's grandfather is (mentally and physically) – he hardly takes a breather from his work.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it. (29-31)

The speaker has decided that he is going to be just as skilled with his tool (the pen) as his father and grandfather were with their spades. But what do you think he'll be digging up with his pen?

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