The Poet and his Heritage: Defence and justification of tradition and personal background in poetological poems:

Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” and Tony Harrison’s “Self Justification”

Essay, 2008

14 Pages, Grade: "very good"

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Defence and justification of tradition and background
2.1. Defence of tradition and culture in “Digging”
2.2. Justification of personal background in “Self Justification”
2.3. ”Digging” and “Self Justification” in comparison

3. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The treatment of a poet’s personal experience in relation to his profession as an artist in society by using poetry as a means of personal expression is one characteristic aspect of poetological poetry throughout history. The poems “Self Justification” by Toni Harrison and “Digging” by Seamus Heaney exemplify this aspect. In these poems both authors relate their profession as artists to their individual background: whereas Heaney sees himself as a successor of his ancestors and hence tries to place his role as a poet in the course of his country’s culture and family traditions, Harrison portrays himself in the surroundings of an inarticulate working-class community and relates his need for self-justification to that circumstance.

In this paper, I will first identify the individual backgrounds apparent from the poems and will then describe how they are presented within the poems by their respective speakers. It will become clear that the poems´ messages are largely autobiographical (Still, to avoid misunderstandings, I will refer to the respective authors as “speaker” or “persona”). Furthermore, I will show how the speakers of the poems defend themselves and then compare them in their individual conclusions. Eventually, I will demonstrate that the solution delivered by the speaker in “Digging” leads to a mode of justification which is in line with his background whereas the speaker in “Self-Justification” seeks to prove his eloquence as he is not in line with his background.

2. Defence and justification of tradition and background

2.1. Defence of tradition and culture in “Digging”

In his essay “Feeling into Words,” Heaney describes the significance of his poem “Digging”[1] and the function of poetry in general as follows:

“[I see] poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura and authenticity of archaeological finds [...]; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants. “Digging,” in fact, was the name of the first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words, or to put it more accurately, where I thought my feel had got into words.” (PREOCCUPATIONS 41; my italics) Considering the information which the author himself offers, “Digging” reflects the author’s personal feelings towards the topics treated in ”Digging.” He specifies this by saying that it did not only reflect his feeling s at the time, but also reflected his overall mindset, which he describes by saying that his “feel had got into words.” It becomes clear from this statement that Heaney uses poetry as a means of expression of “the self to the self,” as a means which allows him to deal with his feelings and experiences, but also in order to break ´culture` into its essential elements. To him, poems embody elements of a progressing nature - probably the ´continuity` of the author’s poetic spirit – and, to him, poems have the atmosphere and ´authenticity of archaeological findings.` He compares the act of writing poetry with the process of digging something out which, in turn, has the capacity to grow into something precious. This is an analogy which is presented in “Digging” and identifies Heaney himself as the voice - the speaker - of the poem.

“Digging“ consists of 31 lines and is grouped into eight sections which vary between two and eight lines in length. There is neither a fixed rhyme scheme nor a fixed metre. The only end rhymes are “sound” and “ground” (3-4). Although the relation of ´ground` and ´sound` in their literal meaning in the context of the section is meant as the sound that one can hear, from a perspective of the overall meaning of the poem the relation of ´sound` - in the sense of reliable, firm or healthy - and ´ground` represents an important aspect of the poem. Uncoupled from their literal meaning, the words ´ground` and ´sound` complement each other not only in that they rhyme and thus forms a unity in front of the eyes of the reader, but also in that the ´sound` ´ground` represents an important aspect of the background which the speaker describes in the poem: it conveys the positive image of nature as well as the positive belief and praise of soil as a reliable source of income for the speaker’s father and grandfather, who he presents in the poem. Moreover, the persona holds the attitude of the working men in high esteem. This is exemplified by his description of the digger’s meticulous work as well as the description of his grandfather’s moral attitude towards work: “[...] He straightened up / To drink it, then fell to right away / Nicking and slicing neatly,[...]” (20-22). The speaker’s grandfather would not have long breaks but would continue his work straight away.

A further image of nature and the relation of the speaker’s ancestors towards it is presented in the seventh section. There, he recalls a smell, a sound and a picture: “[...] the curt cuts of an edge / Through living roots” (26-27) awake in his „head” (27) - cuts which were created by his ancestor’s shovels. In the next line he contrasts his own role with that of the diggers by saying ”But I’ve no spade to follow men like them. ” (28). Whereas in section 7, the persona first concludes that he does not have a means of digging like his ancestors to produce “cuts of an edge / Through living roots,” (26-27) he now compares his pen with a means of digging in the next and also last section of the poem: “The squat pen rests. / I´ll dig with it. //” (30-31). This analogy in reference to section 7 implies that he will also make cuts through living roots: the living roots of language which, by writing poetry, he cuts and with which he creates an edge or blade[2] of individual representation. This idea, which the speaker develops from the image in line 25 and 26, is also represented in the metre of the poem. From the moment onwards when the picture of “living roots” (27) evolves in the speaker’s imagination, the metre of the poem becomes a stable iambic metre (27-31) and thus presents the harmonious solution which he finally assigns to his place in the family’s and country’s traditions.

The poem is a lyrical as well as a narrative poem. Its narrative elements take account of the history of the speaker’s family and the tradition of digging. Lyrical elements include - among others - the analogy of the pen as a means of digging (”The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it. //”). Within the poem, the internal movement of the speaker is signalled by varying time levels. Each time level shows the occupation of one generation: there is the speaker, his father and his grandfather. Until he reaches his final decision for action in the last section, almost every section represents a situation, flashback, or inner motion of the speaker which eventually leads to his final decision for justification. His decision is to join the tradition of his family and to dig as well - he will do this, however, with the help of his pen (31: “I’ll dig with it.”). He will dig into the past, the history and the culture of his home country. He will dig into language and dig poems out of it.

While there are many enjambments within the sections, the effect of inner connection between the sections is achieved by enjambments. This is the case in section 2 and 3 where the speaker hears the sound of a spade digging ”into gravely ground” (4), looks “down” (5) and sees his father. Either triggered by the sound of the spade, his father’s motion while digging, or both, he experiences a flashback. The persona remembers that while his father now ”bends low” and “comes up” (7) in the “flowerbeds,” (6) he used to stoop “in rhythm” when digging in the “potato drills“ (8) of the family. This enjambment is prominent as it functions as an echoing connection which presents the thought stream of the speaker, who travels back in time and remembers a situation “twenty years away” (7), as an outward (formal) continuum.

Haney’s precise and elaborative language represents the precise motion (26: “curt cuts”) of the diggers. His use of adjectives apparent in “rasping sound” (3), “gravelly ground” (4), “straining rump” (6), “cold smell” (25), “soggy peat” (26), “curt cuts” (26), “cool hardness” (14) and “squat pen” (2 and 30) enhances the neat description of the memories and experiences of the speaker. They represent the impressive nature to which the speaker feels close and from which he does not want to be parted, solely because of his occupation. In “Digging,” the function of phonological figures such as alliteration is that they add a certain density to the text which - in turn - reflects the intense impression of the family tradition of labourers - and Irish tradition in general - on the speaker. Alliteration can be found in line 4 (“spade sinks”), line 17 (“curt cuts”), line 23 (“digging down and down”) and in line 26 (“curt cuts”), whereas the sharp cuts of the diggers into the soil the speaker remembers are especially enforced by the fact that the description of this picture consists of monosyllabic words only. Onomatopoeia, which is especially apparent in “squelch” (25) and “slap” (25), adds to the graphic quality of the memories which the persona presents to the reader. Therefore, his precise language and skilfully designed elements make the speaker a follower of the tradition of the diggers insofar as they have precision and skilful work in common. The entire generation of the speaker’s family dig under a surface and reveal something which is essential for them - whether that is potatoes, turf or poetry.

The argumentation of conflict plays a crucial role in the illustration of the speaker’s defence as an artist. In the first section, the persona compares his pen’s fit in his hand to that of a gun (“The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.”). Rix implies that ”[...] the keyword <gun> introduces a tenor of violence [...] [which] [...] immediately leads to the questioning of the role of the poet towards the Northern Ireland conflict. Under the surface of the poem as well as in the factual representation of Northern Ireland the alarming presence of violence is concealed.”


[1] All further citations refer to “Digging,” New Selected Poems, 1.

[2] For influence of Tomlinson on Heaney’s poetry see cf. : Heaney, Seamus. PREOCCUPATIONS: Selected Prose. London: Faber & Faber, 1980.

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The Poet and his Heritage: Defence and justification of tradition and personal background in poetological poems:
Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” and Tony Harrison’s “Self Justification”
University of Duisburg-Essen
"very good"
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Poet, Heritage, Defence
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Stefanie Dorothea Woelfle (Author), 2008, The Poet and his Heritage: Defence and justification of tradition and personal background in poetological poems: , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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