Digging and Follower show Heaney delving into his earliest personal memories of his childhood and giving them life through words. He uses diverse approaches to expose the underlying emotion of his memories, using tactile imagery that is often also metaphorical.
On the surface, his poetry may appear simple, or perhaps trivial – but often, as with all things, there is more to it than what first glance reveals. Heaney does not use pretentious elaborate visual description that is ‘sugar coated’ in the way that memories usually are. His use of onomatopoeia and ‘clumsy’ words such as “squelch”, “slap” often verge on the grotesque but are extremely effective in conveying a sense of reality.
By remembering these simple details, such as the sound of a spade ‘rasping’ as it sinks into ‘gravelly ground’, Heaney can make connections with his past background and seek to define his identity through his poems.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Digging presents a good example of a parallel between the tactile and metaphorical. The first two-line stanza ‘earths’ the poem to the poet – using direct, simple, striking language. “Gun” particularly draws the reader’s attention; it is aggressive and monosyllabic.
Heaney remembers the way his father, a farmer, dug for potatoes – using description appealing heavily to the senses. Although this particular memory can be seen as simple, or trivial, it is through these every-day activities that the roots of the present grow into – the past ‘earth’ that is made up by seemingly dull daily chores.
The poet recreates the memory and gives it a fresh-coat of paint using vivid, tactile, aural description. Heaney crafts a borderline between the immediate present and the past by using delicate imagery of his father “Bend low, com up twenty years away”, as if transported through time.
The fourth stanza sinks into immediacy, as it is a first hand, surprised reaction to his father’s skill, linking back in time to his father’s father. This also creates a sense of times changing, of tradition breaking.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
In Digging, Heaney quite blatantly parallels digging for potatoes with digging for memories. He cannot match “men like them” with a spade, but by substituting a spade for a pen and potatoes for memories and inspiration, the paint and palette of a poem, he can dig into his past and celebrate them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
In comparison to Digging, Follower is a far more personal poem. Heaney reveals nuggets of the relationship between himself as a boy and his father, a farmer, whom he respected and looked up to.
The first three stanzas show the poet’s own memories of living on a farm, using technical, unemotional language to describe his father expertly using the horse-plough. Heaney himself does not enter the poem until the fourth stanza, where it begins directly with “I”:
I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
The Heaney existing within the poem looks up to his father, feeling both inferior and wistful – “stumbled in his …. wake”, “Fell sometimes”, – however, there is also warmth describing the father and son relationship:
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.
The poem returns to the wistful tone of a young boy idolizing his father. The language is child-like and describes the actions of a child.
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
The tone changes to resentful, even bitter and sad. It is emotional, and describes what he thought his father perceived him to be: a ‘nuisance’, tripping and falling behind his father.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
The feeling of resentment is echoed in the final lines,
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
There is an obvious reversal of roles that is not present in Digging. The final stanza could be interpreted as instead the memory of his father that will not dissipate, that holds him back and “stumbles” behind him.
Heaney shows the transformation and change of a child growing into an adult, and it is through these two poems that he reflects on how this took place. Background and identity are explored through personal, unsweetened recognitions – both the unpleasant and the good.