Seamus Heaney: In-Depth Analysis of Poetry

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Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 and he is the eldest of nine children. During his childhood, he lived on the family farm, Mossbawn, near to Belfast in County Derry. He did not like to farm like his father but he related farming to poetry. Later, he enrolled at Queen's College, Belfast to study English Language and Literature. In the early 1960s, after attenting Queen's College, he became a lecturer at Joseph's College. From 1985, Heaney also taught at Harvard University until 2006 and served as the Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1989 to 1994. His beginnings as a poet coincided with his meeting with the woman whom he was to marry in 1965 and who was to be the mother of his three children. Like her husband, Marie Devlin, came from a large family, several of whom are themselves writers and artists. She has been central to the poet's life, both professionnaly and imaginatively, therefore appearing in individuals poems from all periods of his oeuvre to the most recent. Heaney's belief in the power of poetry and art, offers hope in the face of an uncertain future; when asked about the value of poetry in times of crisis, Heaney answered “ If poetry and the arts do anything,” he said, “they can fortify your inner life, in inwardness”.

Seamus Heaney is, today, widely recognized as a major poet of the 20th century, and this is why it is not surprising that in 1995 he was rewarded “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and living past.” and won the Novel Prize for Literature. This study aims to analyze and contrast two poems written by Seamus Heaney from a collection of poems called “Death of a Naturalist”, published in 1966. The first poem is “Digging”, which tells of Heaney's thoughts about his future and his dream of becoming a writer instead of a farmer, like his father and grandfather before him; and the second poem is “Mid-Term Break”, which tells of the death of Heaney's younger brother Christopher, who at the age of four, was killed by a car.

The poem I will look at is “Digging”. Seamus Heaney uses many poetical techniques and devices throughout the poem and some of them can also be seen in his other poem “Mid-Term Break”, such as alliteration, metaphors, technical language, colloquial language and similes and some devices and techniques that are unique to this poem. The many poetic devices and techniques Heaney has used in, “Digging,” can be easily seen, for example Heany has used the title of the poem as an extended metaphor throughout, “Digging,”This term is used to show how Heaney is digging up his past. He is able to do this through his writing.Heaney has used many more poetical devices and techniques in the rest of the poem here are just three of them: In the first two lines, Heaney uses a simile to describe his pen, “Snug as a gun,” He uses this simile to show that he is more comfortable with a pen than a spade; he prefers to go into poetry then to carry on the family tradition of farming. Although Heaney is content on writing poetry then farming like his family have done for generations before him, he realises that he has destroyed the family tradition of farming thus the pen being a gun and Seamus firing the gun at and destroying his families proud family tradition of farming and he feels guilty about it.

The second stanza, on the first line reads, “under my window, a clean rasping sound”, the word `rasping` is onomatopoeic and includes the reader, enhances there ability to imagine the scene. The next line, Heaney also uses alliteration to describe his dad digging and onomatopoeia to describe work on the farm, “When the spade sinks into gravely ground. Buried the bright edge deep,” here Seamus Heaney has used our old friend the poetical device alliteration to create in the reader’s mind a vivid picture of the noises you would hear if you happened to be living on or visiting a farm. The ‘G’ sound from: gravely, ground convey in the reader’s mind the sense of the gravely ground being dug into. On the third stanza, Heaney writes on the first line, “Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds”, where the word `straining` suggests that he is old and hard at work. Line two says, “Bends low, comes up twenty years away”, on the end of that line it tells the reader that digging has been his life, and that he has been doing it for twenty years. Third line reads, “stooping in rhythm through potato drills”, the word `stooping` suggests that he is quite old. The next stanza, first line, “The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft”, the word `nestled` shows us how easily digging was for his father and the next few lines read, “Against the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep, to scatter potatoes that we picked, loving their hardness in our hands”. That whole stanza enables the reader to imagine the scene more vividly, due to the detailed step-by-step instructions.

Here in this poem Seamus Heaney does not use a uniform structure and there is no rhyme. Like in, “Mid-term break,” Heaney has used colloquial terms to create a conversational tone, “By god, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.” The language and structure of this poem could represent Heaney’s random thoughts. It’s as through he is casually talking to his friend expressing his pride in the skill of his father as a farmer. Next stanza, first two lines, “My grandfather cut more in a turf in a day, than any other man on Toner's bog”, those first couple of lines have a definite change of tone, which suggests that now he is proud and sees digging as impressive-family tradition. The final three lines of that stanza say, “Once I carried him milk in a bottle, corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up, to drink it, then fell to right away”, show the skill and admiration for the grandfather, also he never stopping and always digging, which is very important to him.Stanza seven, begins, “Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods”, which contains an abundance of verbs there, which that give depth to his work and show how busy he was. The next two lines, “Over his shoulder, going down and down, for the good turf. Digging”. Again that underlines the fact that digging is his life.

In stanza eight, the first line, “The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap”, that opening lines contains onomatopoeic words; squelch and slap. Second line, “Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge”, continues with onomatopoeias `squelch`, `slap` and `soggy` and together with those words the reader can imagine the scene precisely. The final two lines, “Through living roots awaken in my head. But I've no spade to follow men like them”, show how he feels that he cannot dig and does not feel he can follow in their footsteps. Does he not have the ability and strength of his father and grandfather? At the end of the poem we are reminded that Seamus Heaney fells more comfortable with his pen than a spade, “Between my figure and my thumb, The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.”

The structure of the Seamus Heany poem, “Digging” is very interesting and intriguing because it has no uniformed structure. The verses or stanzas are irregular with some being short two line verses or stanzas and others being longer. Heany uses short verses or stanzas to summarise simple but effective points, and longer verses or stanzas to go into more detail about specific people, e.g. his father and grandfather.

The theme of this poem is based on the family, skills, the man’s world, admiration as well as identity. Skills are based on what the poet explains whereby the father and the grandfather are fathers. He goes further to say that he does not fancy writing but he admires the hard work his father portrays. This therefore leads to the other theme being portrayed. The whole poem talks about the male gender that is the poet, grandfather and the father. This therefore is explaining how the man’s world is and the way they have to toil to support the family. The family entity is also seen as the poet is speaking about people he is related to.

The second poem I will look at is “Mid-term break”, the most emotional of the two poems. The simple and straight forward title caught my attention suggesting to me that this poem is going to be about a positive experience, a break from work, a time to relax. The poem is about one of Heaney's most traumatizing experience and memory of his childhood, going to his first ever funeral and it being the one of his only brother, who was just four years old when he died. The beginning line shows a low tone that is full of surprises that is not positive at all. This was a sad affair for both him and his family who were peasants. The father was immune to death but this one he could not find a way to go round of it. The mother as well felt as if it was not right what happened to his son. Overall, it was tragic as the brother was still young and he had not yet grown to adulthood; and the fact that the room was full of strangers telling him how sorry they were about the tragedy and whispers about him informed them he was the eldest, it made him very embarassed and scared enough to hold his mother's hand “ I was embarrassed, By old men standing up to shake my hand, And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’. Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,Away at school, as my mother held my hand.”

“Mid-Term Break” is also written in the first person narrative, which in my opinion, expresses a more personal sentiment, it is if we were Heaney going to the funeral. Throughout the poem, Seamus uses many poetic techniques, such as colloquial, metaphors, similes, repetition, alliteration but also emotional language. As an example, you can see in the first stanza of the poem where he use alliteration, “I sat all morning in the collage sickbay, Counting bells knelling classes to a close”, here Heaney used alliteration in this stanza to accentuate the 'C' sound in the following words: collage, classes and close, by doing so Heaney repeats the 'C' sound and therefore creates rhythm in the stanza.

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Another example of poetic device and technique Heaney used in the first stanza, is at the start of the poem when he described his boredom of having to wait for the bell to sound the end of the class, “Counting bells knelling classes to a close.” Although he is referring to the school bell, the word “knelling” suggests a funeral bell. Therefore creating thoughts of death as soon as the poem opens. “Knelling classes to a close” could also refer to the fact that it is the church bells which knell his brother's life to a close. In the second stanza, “In the porch I met my father crying” this confirms that something is wrong and that something tragic had happened. The second line mentions that the father “had always taken funerals in stride” shows how distraught he is. The final line, “And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow” leads the reader to believe that this man is a close friend of the family. Again, at the end of each lie, there is a falling ryhtm which accentuates the sorrow of the loss.

In the third stanza, “The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram” the baby's actions are in total contrast to everyone around it, it is still innoncent and does not know what is happening. The fifth stanza starts with “In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs” it suggests that the mother has cried too much and the death had exhausted her and that she is consumed by the angriness and the sadness. “With the corpse stanched and bandaged by the nurses” Heaney now calls the dead body of his brother “corpse” which conveys the harshness of death and tells the reader that Seamus accepted what had happened.

The sixth stanza starts with “Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops” the word “snowdrops” here suggests something delicate, innocent, pure. The final line “For the first time in six weeks. Paler now.” there is a feeling of guilt, he probably thinks that he sould have been there. In the penultimate stanza, Heaney uses a metaphor to describe the bruise on his brother's left temple, “Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple.” The word poppy used to describe the bruise, making the nasty thing of having a big bruise into a nice thing by comparing it to a wild flower we usually use on Remembrance Day to remember people that have died during the war protecting the country.

The last line uses alliteration, repetition and a poetical technique called explosive information to really but enforces on the fact that Seamus' little brother was only Four years old when he died, “A four foot box, a foot for every year.” The alliteration, repetition Heaney has used in this last line is the F sound to accentuate the sound in the following words: four, foot, foot and for by doing this device, Heaney repeats the sound putting emphasis on the fact that the person being buried is only Four years old, but the main technique he has used, in the poem is the explosive information technique to emphasise the powerfulness of the poem’s ending. Heaney’s honesty helps us image the sadness and pain felt by the family. The structure of Seamus’ sad poem, “Mid-term break”, about a time that anyone would find a upsetting event has a uniform structure of seven verses or stanzas, some verses or stanzas deal with specific individuals such as the second stanza the people Seamus focuses on are his farther, “In the porch I met my father crying, He had always taken funerals in his stride,” and Big Jim Evans, “And big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.” Other verses or stanzas use enjambment to carry ideas to the next verse or stanza. The stanzas or verses only have three lines so they are easy on the eye to read, so you it draws your attention and gives importance to the shorter last line.

There are various themes, which are portrayed in the poem. One of them is death the other is the family as well as moving from one stage to the other. Death as well as grief is distinctively seen in the poem through the way the poet views the body of his brother as well as the way the mother grief’s in pain. Grief in the family is also seen as neighbors go visiting the poet’s home so that they can condole together. The father of the deceased is also mourning the death of the child whereas the poet is finding it hard to mourn. This is seen by the reaction he shows when the neighbors condole with him but for him he does not feel the remorse. During this time, he finally realizes that he has to mature up and go to the next stage. The viewing of the corpse opens his eyes and he finally realizes what is going on. This makes him adjust accordingly. The other theme in the poem is the family theme whereby the poet is explaining the pain they are going through as a family. This shows that at the end of the day as much as people come and condone with you the pain is left with bereaved. This is seen as the poet reacts negatively to the condolences being offered by the neighbors. This is understood, as he is yet to come to terms with the ordeal. They are all grieving in their different ways and no one is capable to show it or make the other people understand that. This therefore brings us to the question study of how the themes in the two poems are seen.

The two poems digging and midterm break, all explains family affairs or things that have happened to Seamus’ life. In both poems, there is a form of remorse but it is portrayed more in the midterm break poem. Both poems talk about his parents and explain the characteristics of his parents. Another similarity in the poem is the fact that he uses different styles to explain himself and make the poem more interesting to read. He ensures he uses metaphors where necessary as well as both of them being a narrative. Seamus has used technical language and nautical imagery, and the poem “Mid –term break” uses the same devices and techniques as “Digging,” but without the pronouns, onomatopoeia, similes and rhyming couplets. He replaced them with emotional language, repetition, and last line explosive information technique. The differences and similarities of the structures of the two poems are obvious. The similarities are: In, “Digging” and “Mid-term break” some verses or stanzas deal with and or go into more detail about specific people, e.g. in, “Digging,” the people described by Seamus in specific stanzas or verses are: Heaney’s father digging (in the third, fourth and fifth stanza’s) and grandfather digging and how fast he dug when he was Seamus’s fathers age (this can be seen in the sixth and seventh stanzas).

The family theme is quite an important one in both of the poems as they are clearly seen in both poems. Seamus wrote these poems with so much vigor whereby he feels that family is important and they should be taken care of accordingly. In “Mid-Term Break” the theme of the family is visible especially the way he starts by saying he gets home and at the porch his father is crying. This automatically shows us that whatever he wants to inform us is based in the family. This automatically triggers the theme of the family and instantly directs us t the family setting. The mystery is at par at this line as there is nothing much that is being explained here.

In the poem “Digging”, he compares his career to what his father used to love. He shows how both of them are similar whereas in midterm break he shows how their family was shaken by the death of the young. The aim of the poem digging was to ensure that the theme on skills is well explained and that it is brought out accordingly. This is brought out perfectly in the poem by the way he explains how his father works hard as well as his grandfather as compared to him. Also, the reader understands the poet's appreciation of the fact that his father is making the flowerbeds. The making of the flowerbeds is usually associated with women during their free time and it is hard for men to associate themselves with this kind of work. Both genders but mostly the females do general farming. Therefore, for the poets father to do this job accordingly and perfectly shows how much he appreciates farming. The poet acknowledges this fact and goes ahead to say that he is not good in using the spade. The grandfather as well is good in farming especially farming tufts whereby we see that when the son is sent something for his grandfather to gobble, he does so within minutes and goes back to his job. This shows how much the theme of the family is being portrayed in the poem only that it explains the strengths of the paternal side.

The family theme is also reflected in “Mid-Term Break” when the poet is holding her mother while grieving. This shows support as the poet is not yet shook by the news therefore he tries his best to be there for the mother. The fact that they are all present during that trying time shows how much people honor the family institution. The neighbors consoling them as well know the pain people go through therefore them being there is a way of showing how they appreciate families and that they are supporting them.

In both poems, the father figure is present whereby it shows how much the poet feels about the father figure. In the poem digging, he is appreciating him for the good work that he is doing and he sees him as a role model. This is because he does his work diligently and that he makes sure that he never goes a day without doing what he loves most. This inspires him to do poetry at his level best and make sure he brings the best out of it. In the poem “Mid-term Break”, he sees his father crying. This triggers him to know that there is something wrong. It as well changes his emotions and makes him feel the somber mood that he is experiencing. As his father being a role model then it makes him feel as if there is nothing much he can do other than just see what is happening.


The two poems `Mid-Term Break` and `Digging` are both good poems, which are both about families. `Mid-Term Break` is about when he leaves college and returns home to find out the news about his little brother. `Digging` is about his grandfather and how he is getting old and finding work difficult, so both poems are about family, but quite different circumstances. The layout of the two poems is very different. `Mid-Term Break` being very straight forward, just having three lines to each stanza and `Digging` being completely opposite and following no strategic pattern. Both the poems tell a story that will change Seamus's life and they also describe events or problems that happened in his childhood. Both poems also include vivid descriptions of his family and in particular vividly describe his father. The contrasts between the two poems is that 'Mid term break' tells a very sad real life event where as 'Digging' is an experience that only he experienced, whereas 'Mid-Term Break' affected many other people.

Comparing his work has helped me understand better other poems as well. Overall I think that `Mid-Term Break` is a better poem, as I find it more serious and was personally more effective by this poem due to it being quite sad talking about his brother and that last line, “A four foot box, a foot for every year”, which is a very emotional last line to finish a poem.

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