In Memoriam Seamus Heaney – Two Poems

This Irish poet died last month, and I should say a few words about him. Although he’s not one of my very favourite poets, there was a time when I was fascinated by his poems. Here are a couple of his poems that I’d like to share with you.


By the way, Seamus is pronounced “Shay-mus.”

Heaney is considered to be one of the most important poets of the 20th century. In 1995 he received the Nobel Prize, pretty much the highest honour a writer can attain (= reach).

Let’s start by reading one of those poems that I used to read an insane number of times. Its imagery and sounds delighted me and I kept busy trying to understand its meaning.


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Okay, we’ve read it. What do you think this poem is about?

It’s obviously about digging and about the relationship of the grandfather, the father and the poet. This poem is clearly autobiographical, because Heaney’s grandfather really was a turf digger. Turf is vegetable matter dug from the ground that was used for fuel. And his father was a farmer, although he also traded in cattle (= cows and sheep etc.).

The Poem’s Story

The main story of this poem is that the poet looks out his window to see his father digging in the flowerbeds. He then remembers his father when he used to dig potatoes. His grandfather was a champion digger; of turf.

The poet emphasizes the continuity of his family’s occupations. He, too, is a digger. The only difference is that he digs with his pen. Now the only image in the poem that is slightly out of tune with the rest of the poem is in the second line: the pen rests in his hand “snug as a gun.” This suggests that his pen is like a weapon, yet the poet proceeds to tell us that what he does with his pen is dig stories from the past, analyse relationships from the past, and find and cut his roots. So no gun necessary, I would think. It could be that the poet wants to express that his pen is powerful like a gun or something like that. With his pen he can choose to make characters in his poem come alive or push them in the background. He can also make them older or younger at will. Actually his pen is more like a wizard’s wand. I love this effect in the third stanza:

“Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.”

In the description of his father digging, his father is bent over the flowerbeds as an old man, and then, rather miraculously, he emerges (= appears) as his younger self when he was strong and was digging potatoes. Potato drills are raised rows in the soil to plant the potato crops in. It’s also a nice touch that the younger man digging the potatoes is “stooping,” bending his back like an old man. But whereas the old father is stooping because of the strain (= effort), the younger man is simply working his entire body in the movement of his energetic digging.

Old Man

Two beautiful things that you should notice about the poem: first, that the tone of the poem is very loving. The poet is proud of his father, who is affectionately called “old man.” And the same with his grandfather who is lauded (= praised) for being able to “cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner’s bog.”

And the second thing is that the language is beautifully precise. All of the details that are told about bringing his grandpa the milk, for instance, and the spade that the men work with, are interesting. The lug of the spade is the part where you place your foot, and the shaft is the stick of the spade.

Let’s have a look at another famous poem by Heaney. Like “Digging,” this poem also talks about memory and poetry:


The Otter

When you plunged
The light of Tuscany wavered
And swung through the pool
From top to bottom.

I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,
Your fine swimmer’s back and shoulders
Surfacing and surfacing again
This year and every year since.

I sat dry-throated on the warm stones.
You were beyond me.
The mellowed clarities, the grape-deep air
Thinned and disappointed.

Thank God for the slow loadening,
When I hold you now
We are close and deep
As the atmosphere on water.

My two hands are plumbed water.
You are my palpable, lithe
Otter of memory
In the pool of the moment,

Turning to swim on your back,
Each silent, thigh-shaking kick
Re-tilting the light,
Heaving the cool at your neck.

And suddenly you’re out,
Back again, intent as ever,
Heavy and frisky in your freshened pelt,
Printing the stones.

You know what an otter is, right? It’s one of those brown animals that can swim like fish and that build dams and forts in rivers. We have some in the park here, but I don’t particularly like otters. They look too much like rats, and I’m scared of rats…

However, Heaney manages to make the otter in his poem oddly attractive and graceful (= elegant). He is “lithe” (flexible) and his silent kicks reflect the light when he swims. When he is walking he is “intent” (= focused) and “frisky” (= lively), although also a bit comical in his heavy dripping fur which stains the stones.

There are some who hold that this poem is not only about an otter. This is because of the fourth stanza, which speaks of a close relationship that has been slow loadening, in other words has been slow to develop. And “when I hold you now” of course sounds like an embrace. I start thinking of a woman also because of the word pool. A pool could mean a quiet place in a river, where otters like to swim. Try reading the poem with a woman diving into a swimming pool in mind, instead of an otter. It works very well, until the last stanza. A woman really doesn’t have a dripping pelt (= fur) that drips on the stones. So um, to me this poem is only about an otter and not about a woman. What do you say?

Two Parts

The poem is divided into two parts. The first part is when the speaker is sitting next to the body of water where he observes the otter. He does this year after year, and perhaps the otter that he looks at is not the same otter but a different one. However, the otter eludes (= escapes) the speaker. He says: “You were beyond me.” He can’t reach the otter when the otter is in its own world, swimming.

In the second part, the otter belongs to the speaker. The otter is now an otter in his memory. The speaker is able to conjure (= call) the otter when he is swimming as well as when he is out of the water. The image he has of the otter is as vivid as if the animal were really in front of him.

The conclusion of the poem is that the remembered otter is more perfect and more satisfying than the real otter. That’s an interesting and revealing statement for a poet to make. It comes pretty close to saying that the poem of the otter is more perfect and more satisfying than trying to snatch glimpses (= looks) of a real otter. Actually what I said before that I enjoy reading this poem but I’m not a fan of real otters also fits this idea. Many poets have written about how art is more real and interesting to them than reality, so the theme in itself is nothing new. But this skilful poem reminds you that in order to make a poem about an otter you need a real otter first.

Hope you enjoyed this.

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