The Poem Digging deals with Heaney’s relationship with his family. An Advancement of Learning deals with Heaney’s childhood and his fears when he was young and now that he is older how he overcomes those fears.
In his poem Digging Heaney is deciding on how he will use his poetry and its relevance to the work of his father and grandfather. He writes about his fathers job digging for potatoes and his prowess with a shovel, “The course boot nestled on the lug, the shaft against the inside knee was levered firmly”, he makes the action of his father digging for potatoes sound professional rather than just a haphazard way of shoving a shovel into the ground.
He reflects on the pride he has for his grandfather and how he takes pride in the fact that his grandfather “cut more turf in a day than any other man on Toners bog”. He also takes pride when he takes milk out to him while he is working because he believes that he is helping his grandfather work, “Once I carried him milk in a bottle corked sloppily with paper”.
Towards the end of his poem he realises that as times change and so must his family that he can no longer dig for potatoes because times have changed, “but I’ve no spade to follow men like them”, instead he decides to “dig” with his poetry that he will dig into his family’s and his own past with his poetry, “Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests I will dig with it.
In An Advancement of Learning, Heaney tells us of his fear for rats and how they would terrorise him as a child behind the chicken coop and on the ceiling boards above his bed, “When his grey brothers scraped and fed behind the hen coop in our yard, on ceiling boards above my bed”. However Heaney has to confront his fears when he walks along the riverbank and gets flanked by two rats, he has no escape so must confront his childhood fears. He begins to stare out the rat and realises that it is nothing to be feared that it is a feeble creature and that when it finally runs up a sewage outlet, ” This terror, wet-furred, small-clawed, retreated up a pipe for sewage.”
In Digging he makes his first important decision as a poet; how he will use his writing. At the beginning of the poem he reflects on the strength of poetry and how it can be used, he does this by referring to his pen having the power of a gun, “Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. This is similar to the old saying that “the pen is mightier than the sword”, Heaney realises the power of writing and that if not used correctly it can be dangerous. He then talks about his family and how his father and grandfather dug for potatoes. By talking about his father and how he would dig he decides to carry on the legacy but in a different form of digging he will “dig” through his own and his family’s past using his poetry, “Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it”.
Many of Heaney’s poems are set in the countryside and neither of these are exceptions. In An Advancement of Learning Heaney walks by the river and describes it as being quite menacing, he gives it human features such as a skin and clothes to heighten the feeling of fear, “The river nosed past, pliable, oil-skinned, wearing a transfer of gables and sky.” he describes the swans as being “dirty”. This all shows his awareness of his surroundings and nature.
For Digging he tells us of the methods his father and grandfather used to dig for potatoes and how he helped look for them in the mud, how he loved to feel their “cool hardness” in his hands as a young boy. He describes the smell of the surroundings and the feeling when he walked over the peat, these are all his feelings in his rural surroundings as a boy, “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.”
Heaney brings up memories of his past and his childhood in each poem. In Digging he tells of the time he brought milk to his grandfather while he was working and the pride he felt because he thought he was helping out, “Once I carried him milk in a bottle corked sloppily with paper.” In An Advancement of Learning he reflects on the fear the rat invokes in him and the memories of them terrorising him as a young boy, “When his grey brothers scraped and fed behind the hen coop in our yard, on ceiling boards above my bed”.
Throughout his poetry Heaney uses vivid language to describe his surroundings, he also uses language to help him accentuate feelings. In An Advancement of Learning he heightens the fear of the surroundings by making everything dark and gloomy “I considered the dirty keeled swans”. When the rat turns up he makes things feel grimy and disgusting by using language, his language also helps him justify his fear of rats, “Smudging the silence: a rat slimed out of the water”. He also makes the rat seem like a monster by using language in his specific way and he also makes up his own with the word knobbled, “He clock worked aimlessly a while, stopped, back bunched and glistening, ears plastered down on his knobbled skull, insidiously listening”. To create fear Heaney personifies the river by giving in human features such as skin and clothes as well as the way it moves, “The river nosed paste, pliable, oil skinned, wearing a transfer of gables and sky.”
In Digging Heaney describes the way his father uses a spade. Using certain words made his father sound as if he had expertise with a shovel, as if it was a natural task to him, “The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft against the inside knee was levered firmly”.
In both Digging and An Advancement of Learning the structure runs full circle, with Heaney starting with a problem then ending with resolving of that problem. In Digging it is shown best. He starts off with the problem of how he will use his poetry and ends with the problem solved, this cyclical pattern is seen best in this poem because he says almost the same line at the end as he does at the beginning, “Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests;” at the beginning and at the end, “Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it”
In An Advancement of Learning Heaney begins with his fear of a particular route because a possible encounter with a rat and ends with his fear resolved, this can be seen at the beginning of the poem when it says that he always deferred from the bridge because of his fear and then at the end he crosses it, “I took the embankment path (as always deferring the bridge)” and “Then I walked on and crossed the bridge”.
In both poems he uses informal, colloquial phrases to give his own feeling to the situation and make it feel more genuine, “I turned down the path in a cold sweat, but God, another was nimbling up the far bank” from An Advancement of Learning. “By God the old man could handle a spade” from Digging.
In his poems he uses the structure of his stanzas to show feelings and make the reader become more involved. In Digging he uses this quite a bit, to start with he uses almost the same line at the beginning of the poem as he does at the end to emphasise the cyclical pattern of the poem. He uses the formation of stanzas again to involve the reader, in the second stanza he says that he looks down as we (the reader) look down to the next stanza. This helps involve the reader more so that you are part of the poetry. The stanza itself is set up like an informal conversation to help him emphasise his feelings by making the poem more personal just like he uses the colloquial phrases.
Heaney uses many poetic devices throughout each poem to give them a better “feel” and help him emphasise points throughout both poems. In Digging he uses many onomatopoeias to help the reader get more involved in the scene with the sounds of his father digging, “A clean rasping sound as the spade sinks into gravely ground” and “The squelch and slap of soggy peat” these are all words that sound like the actual action. He does the same in An Advancement of Learning to heighten his fear for the rats, “something slobbered curtly, close”, “A rat slimed out of the water” and “Back bunched and glistening”.
Heaney also uses alliteration in his poems to give the scene a better feeling. In Digging, “When the spade sinks into gravely ground” and “The curt cuts of an edge”. He also uses it in An Advancement of Learning, “The tapered tail that followed him”.
An Advancement of Learning in itself is a metaphor for facing his childhood fears the rats are as well as being an actual fear are an embodiment of his fears and when at the end of the poem he crosses the bridge he crosses over his fear and begins a new path free of his fears.