This poem is like Follower, as it shows how the young Heaney looked up to his elders - in this case both father and grandfather.
Seeing his father (now old) “straining” to dig “flowerbeds”, the poet recalls him in his prime, digging “potato drills”. And even earlier, he remembers his grandfather, digging peat. He cannot match “men like them” with a spade, but he sees that the pen is (for him) mightier, and with it he will dig into his past and celebrate them.
Heaney challenges the stereotype of Paddy with a spade. The stereotype contains some truth - Irishmen are justifiably well known for digging, but Heaney shows the skill and dignity in their labour. We see also see their sense of the work ethic - the father still digs in old age, the grandfather, when he was working, would barely stop to drink.
There is a central extended metaphor of digging and roots, which shows how the poet, in his writing, is getting back to his own roots (his identity, and where his family comes from). The poem begins almost as it ends, but only at the end is the writer's pen seen as a weapon for digging.
About the poet
Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, on a farm in Castledawson, County Derry, Northern Ireland, the eldest of eight children. In 1963, he began teaching at St. Joseph's College in Belfast. Here he began to write, joining a poetry workshop with Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, and others under the guidance of Philip Hobsbaum. In 1965 he married Marie Devlin, and in 1966 year he published his first book of poetry, Death of a Naturalist. His other poetry includes Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), North (1979), Selected Poems 1965-1975 (1980), Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987), New Selected Poems 1966-1987 (1990) and Seeing Things (1991). In 1999 he published a new translation of the Old English heroic poem Beowulf.
Seamus Heaney is a Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was Professor of Poetry at...