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Seamus Heaney – ‘At a Potato Digging’

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  • Pages: 14
  • Word count: 3456
  • Category: Nature

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• Context • • The poem deals with two different potato harvests. One is the harvest from the present day that goes successfully and which delivers a rich crop. The second potato harvest looks back to the famine of 1845 when the crop failed and many people starved. Whilst the famine is no longer a threat, its ongoing fear remains and this can be seen in the use of religious language throughout the poem. For example, the bowed heads of the potato pickers suggest the desire to respect the gods and show them respect. The poem begins with Heaney describing workers in a potato field in Ireland. They follow a machine that turns up the crop and they put these into a basket and then store them. The second section of the poem involves the healthy potatoes being described. The third section writes about the famine of the past. Fungus destroyed the entire crop of potatoes and this happened for three consecutive years.

Ireland was devastated and there were many deaths with people being forced to flee Ireland. In the final section of the poem, Heaney returns to the first section of the poem – Ireland in the 1960s at lunchtime. The workers sit happily, with food to eat. The rhythm of the poem changes in the third section of the poem. This is well suited to the changing subject matter of this part of the poem. Connections are established between each of the sections – the potatoes that are compared to skulls in section two, link to the literal skeletons of section three. The use of religious imagery in the poem is a means of helping the reader to understand the importance of the potato harvest to the people of Ireland.

Even in the parts of the poem that deal with the present when food is plentiful, there are suggestions of the past famine. For example, the fingers that go ‘dead in the cold’. The language of the third section helps the reader to understand the negative impact of the famine through words such as ‘blighted’, ‘putrefied’, ‘rotted’ and ‘stinking’. Vivid language is used throughout the poem and this is in order for the reader to visualise the situation.

Nature – The poem deals with the natural world and the different aspects of nature can be seen in the reference to the earth as the ‘black mother’ that gives life and also the ‘bitch earth’ that is capable of inflicting great suffering. Suffering – The suffering of the people of Ireland is described in detail in the poem and we understand the extent of the misery that was caused by the famine. The Past – Heaney’s desire to make connections between the past and present is very important to the poem – a link is made between events more than a century apart. A Difficult Birth / The Field-Mouse – Both poems look at the natural world and the way in which it operates. Inversnaid – This poem takes delight in the natural world, describing the beauty of the town of Inversnaid as it has not been touched by human hand. Patrolling Barnegat – In common with ‘At a Potato Digging’, this poem enables the reader to understand the power of the natural world and we appreciate the extent to which it can have an impact on the lives of human beings.

Seamus Heaney – ‘Follower’
• Context • • This is one of several poems in the collection in which Heaney draws upon his own memories of the past. Heaney remembers being a boy and his experiences of following his father around the farm as he ploughed the field. In common with ‘Digging’, the affection of the poet for his father is clear. Another connection between the two poems would come from the fact that in each, the expertise of the father in working the land is very apparent. During the first three stanzas of the poem, the poet recalls his father working the fields. What comes across very clearly from these recollections, is that the father was highly skilled. The poet goes on to describe how he used to follow his father and he would then stumble and it was necessary for his father to pick him up and carry him on his back. Heaney recalls how, at this time in his life, his only ambition was to follow in his father’s footsteps and to be like him. The poem ends with Heaney considering the way roles have changed now that he is older and a poet and it is his father who follows him.

The expertise of the father in ploughing the field is reflected in the images that are used to describe him. The phrases ‘globed like a full sail strung’, ‘dipping and rising’ and ‘wake’, all recall the smooth progress of a ship through the water. Enjambement is used in the poem and this is another way of communicating the smooth progress of the father. Many lines flow smoothly on from one another, without there being a pause at the end of the line. Present participles (words that end with –ing) are used a lot in this poem. The purpose of this is to create a sense of immediacy and movement. Heaney’s familiarity with the natural processes of working the land can be seen in the use of the technical language associated with ploughing, including ‘furrow’ and ‘headrig’. Words associated with precision are associated with the work of the father and these would include ‘polished’ and ‘exactly’. In the final stanza, the use of the connective ‘But’ serves to mark a change in tone, as the poet moves from his memory of the past and starts to consider the present situation.

Nature – The importance of nature is seen clearly in the poem, with the father clearly an expert farmer and the poet clearly having a strong bond with the natural world. Relationships – The relationship that exists between the father and son is at the core of the poem. It is very clear that the son loves his father and admires him, as can be seen in his desire to follow in his footsteps. The end of the poem serves to suggest the natural cycle of life – all people one day get old and the son will take the role of the father. The final line would also seem to suggest the importance of the father’s memory. Catrin – This poem also deals with the mixed feelings and changing feelings that can exist in a relationship between parents and children – the mother’s perspective. On My First Sonne – A poem about an extremely affectionate relationship between father and son, although once again from the parent’s perspective. The Song of the Old Mother – Link would be that this poem considers the cycle of life and the way in which the roles of people change with age. The Affliction of Margaret – Nature of parent / child relationships.

Seamus Heaney – ‘Death of a Naturalist’
• Context • • Northern Ireland is famous for producing linen and this material is made from flax. The poem describes a flax-dam which is where flax is soaked in order to soften it. In this poem, Seamus Heaney recalls an event from his own childhood in Northern Ireland when he went to visit the dam and his opinion of nature changed. In common with ‘Blackberry Picking’ the poem looks at the natural world and the way children are able to learn lessons that apply to their wider life.

Poem begins with the narrator describing the dam and a clear sense of the child’s delight in nature comes through. The narrator describes how he used to take frogspawn and also recalls the childish explanation of this that he was given from a teacher at school. The poem ends with the narrator describing one occasion when he went down to the dam and it appearing to be different. It is as if the natural world is angry at the spawn being stolen and the narrator ended up running away from the dam terrified. The poem is written in two starts and each deals with a clearly defined topic. The first offers a general description of the setting and sums up the innocent attitude towards it. The second section focuses on a specific visit to the dam and the consequences of it. The movement between the first and second section of the poem is underlined by the use of the word ‘Then’ at the start of the second section. The poem makes use of enjambement (one line running on into the next) and this helps to create a sense of flow in it.

Sound plays an important part in helping to create a sense of the setting through words such as ‘slobber’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘slap’ and ‘plop’. Heaney uses words such as ‘rotted’, ‘gargled’, ‘warm thick slobber’ to create a sense of the potentially unpleasant nature of the setting. Language is used to create a sense of menace that comes to the surface as the poem progresses. The sound of the frogs is like a ‘threat’ and there is a simile of the frogs being like ‘mud grenades’. Finally, there is the metaphor of the ‘great slime kings’. Childhood – The poem refers to a specific incident, but can be seen as metaphorical for the way in which children grow up. The narrator learns a lesson that innocent and unthreatening experiences can actually be quite the opposite. Death / Loss – Whilst there is no literal death in this poem, it does deal with the metaphorical death of the child’s innocent view of the natural world. Nature – The attitude of the narrator to the natural world is crucial to the poem. Nature is not a benign force and should not be taken for granted.

Sonnet (Clare) – This poem shares the childish delight that is seen in nature in the first part of ‘D of a N’, but in Clare’s poem, this in not misplaced. Patrolling Barnegat – The power of nature comes across very clearly in this poem by Whitman and it would also link to another Heaney poem – ‘Storm on the Island’. The Field Mouse – Clarke’s poem involves the children coming to understand the violent side to the natural world and there is an even clearer link to the world beyond.

Seamus Heaney – ‘Mid-Term Break’
• Context • In 1951, Seamus Heaney was 12 years of age and he went to St. Columbs College in Derry where he was a boarding pupil. Whilst attending the college, Heaney’s younger brother Christopher was killed in a road accident and this poem involves the poet recalling the events that happened to him after this.

The poem begins with the narrator recalling being a child in the college sick bay – he was not ill and had been taken there as something had happened. A neighbour then arrived and took the poet home, where it becomes clear that something terrible has happened. His father was crying and this was entirely out of character and the family friend Jim Evans was there. Old men greet the child and shake his hand. The poem ends with a change of scene and time, as the child enters the room of his dead brother the next morning and he attempts to make sense of what has happened. The poem is a very personal one that sees the narrator looking back to an event from their childhood and attempting to make sense of this. Poem is descriptive in nature and there is a focus on small details in order to evoke the various stages. These stages link to the changing moods of the narrator – puzzlement at the start of the poem, embarrassment at the attention of the old men, calmness in the room of his brother and the bitterness of the final line.

Final line of the poem stands alone and this serves to draw attention to it. It rhymes with the previous line that underlines the tragedy. The use of the word ‘knelling’ in line 2 is important. A knell is the sound that is made by a funeral bell and the word therefore links to the subject matter of the poem. There is a pun with ‘Big Jim Evans’ referring to the ‘hard blow’. The word has a double meaning and helps the reader to understand the nature of the scene. We are made to wait for the final stanza for the first direct reference to the accident and the narrator does not flinch from this.

The use of the word ‘box’ in the final line helps us to feel the narrator’s bitterness at what has taken place. Childhood – The poem involves the poet recalling an event from his own childhood. It involves the narrator ‘growing up’ due to the terrible nature of the experience. Death / Loss – The fact that the poem deals with the death of a child, encourages the reader and narrator to question the pointlessness of death. Focus of the poem is on the reactions of people to death and the way people attempt to make sense of the loss. Memory – Poem recalls an event from the past and this links it to other poems in the collection that involve looking back in order to see the present and future clearly.

Cold Knap Lake / On the Train – Both of these poems deal with the idea of loss and the way death or the prospect of death can affect people. The Field-Mouse / The Man He Killed – These poems deal with loss and also question the suffering that has taken place and its pointlessness. On My First Sonne – This poem concerns the loss of a child and has been written to make sense of what has happened – more positive than ‘Mid-Term Break’.

Seamus Heaney – ‘Digging’
• Context • Seamus Heaney’s family were rural labourers in Ireland and both his father and grandfather have a reputation for great expertise in handling a spade. Heaney would have been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a labourer. The poem serves as a justification of Heaney’s decision to become a writer, rather than work in the fields. The reference to a ‘gun’ in the poem reminds the reader of the political problems in Ireland and the violence that has had a huge impact there over many years.

The poet begins sat at his desk writing and then looking out of his window, after hearing the sound of his father digging outside. The sight of his father digging reminds Heaney of his grandfather digging and the excellent reputation that he had for being able to dig out peat turves. A reflective tone ends the poem as the poet states that he will not be able to follow in their way of life as his pen is his spade – he intends to dig into the past.

The poem is written in the first person – the narrator is recalling a personal event from their past and reflecting upon this. The stanzas are of different lengths and this reflects the way in which the memory of the poet works. The structure of the poem starts and ends in a very similar way. The short final line suggests the determination of the poet to pursue his writing career in the future.

The language used to describe his father digging suggests his great level of expertise – ‘The coarse boot nestled on the lug’. Language reflects the narrator’s reflection for his father and grandfather – ‘By God the old man could handle a spade.’ Onomatopoeic words are used to give a clear sense of the place to the reader – ‘squelch’. An extended metaphor is used with the process of writing being likened to the process of digging – similarity of looking into the past. Natural World – Expertise of poet’s family in handling a spade and working with nature. There is an enjoyment of nature – ‘Loving their cool hardness’.

Relationships – Poem explores the relationship between the narrator and his father. There is a desire to follow in the footsteps, but not to work in the fields. Memory – Poem explores the workings of the human memory – sight of the father causes him to reflect on his father’s skill and then to dig further into the past, by thinking about his grandfather. Catrin – Poems explore the connections between parents and their children and they explore the way in which these relationships can leave people feeling torn. Both poems involve the narrator looking back into the past to make sense of the present. On My First Sonne – Poems explore the relationship that exists between fathers and their children – sense of affection in both poems. Sonnet – Description of the natural world and a sense of affection / ease with the natural world.

Seamus Heaney – ‘Storm on the Island’
• Context The first eight letters of the title of the poem make up the word ‘Stormont’. This is name of the residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and a place that has been caught up in the storm of violence that has engulfed Northern Ireland for many years. As well as being a poem about the storm and its great power, it is also about the need to build firm foundations to withstand whatever problems we are made to face in our lives.

The poem begins with the islanders describing how they are well-prepared to withstand the storm, due to their houses being strongly built and low to the ground. Due to the conditions, the island is barren – they do not grow corn, so there are no haystacks to be damaged by the wind and rain. As there are no trees, there is no sound of leaves rustling, There are no trees to be knocked down, but also no natural shelter. When the storm becomes particularly fierce, the waves pound the cliffs and even reach the windows of the islanders. All the people can do is wait for the storm to pass.

The poem is written from the perspective of one of the inhabitants of the remote island that is subject to the storm and they therefore understand its nature clearly. The mood of the poem is reflective and thoughtful and no-where is this seen more clearly than in the contemplative tone of the final line. The poem is a metaphor. We must be prepared to withstand the perils of life and only by being prepared and willing to face out these problems can we do this successfully.

There is a conversational feel to the poem and this comes from the language choices and the use of conversational phrases such as ‘you know what I mean’. A number of the language choices in the poem relate to warfare – ‘salvo’, ‘bombarded’ and ‘exploding’. These suggest the power and destructive nature of the storm, as well as providing a link to the political troubles of Ireland. The image of the tame cat is an effective one in indicating the point that we can quickly move from feelings of safety to being in a position where we are vulnerable. Nature – Nature in the poem is clearly something that is of great power and strength. The simile that compares the storm to a tame cat turned savage indicates the danger of taking the natural world for granted and failing to show it an appropriate level of respect.

Violence – Linked closely to the previous theme is that of violence and suffering. The people who live on the island are vulnerable to the storm and there is the interesting and ambiguous final line. Why is it ‘strange’ that we fear ‘nothing’ and is Heaney indicating that we are right or wrong to have these feelings of fear. October / The Field-Moue – Both of these poems by Clarke have nature and the natural world as a key theme. Patrolling Barnegat – The most obviously linked poem, as it is another that deal with a storm and indicates the great power of the natural world. In this respect, it would also be possible to link the poem to The Eagle. Sonnet (Clare) – Another poem that is about the natural world, but in this poem nature is benign and does not present any kind of threat.

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