One of the most revealing questions you can ask about any poet has to do with his sense of responsibility. To whom or what does he hold himself responsible in his writing? The poet who replies Nothingwho believes that the concept of responsibility is foreign to the totally free realm of artis likely to be a bad poet. If there is nothingno reader real or imaginary, no idea, value, or principlewith the right to hold the writer to account, then there is no way for her to know when she is writing better or worse, when she is getting closer to her ideal or straying from it.
That is why a genuine artist almost always wants to feel answerable to something. Not necessarily a person or a group, because any concrete audience is all too likely to constrict the imagination, to encourage flattery or evasion. But there is liberation in feeling responsible to an ideal readerthe best poets of the past, perhaps, or the unbiased readers of the future; or to an ethical principlespeaking truthfully, bearing witness, offering sympathy; or to an aesthetic idealthe radiance of beauty, the genius of the language. Not until you know what a poet feels responsible toward can you know how he wants and deserves to be read.
The strength and the challenge of Seamus Heaneys poetry lie in its willingness to admit all these kinds of responsibility at once. To get a sense of Heaneys temperament, just look at the titles of the major essays and lectures about poetry that he has produced over his long career: The Government of the Tongue, The Redress of Poetry, and Crediting Poetry, the lecture he delivered in Stockholm after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. These are unapologetically ethical terms, and they suggest a poet deeply concerned with the correct use of his gifts. Indeed, few poets have ever interrogated themselves more strenuously than Heaney; again and again in his poetry, we find him confronting himself, or being confronted by a neighbor or reader, with his responsibilities as a man and a poet.
Digging, the first poem of his first collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966), is quoted in almost every discussion of Heaneys work for its prescient statement of the themes that would dominate his poetry: his sensual love of his native ground; his fascination with work and all kinds of tools; his vision of poetry as a traditional, laborious, and sustaining craft, like farming. The most important thing about Digging, however, is that it takes the form of a promise, a commitment from the poet to his father and grandfather, whose lives were spent literally digging the soil. Heaney acknowledges that he is not a farmer, and will not follow their vocation. But at the start of his career, he vows to translate their virtues into another kind of work:
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.
But Ive no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
Ill dig with it.
That is Heaney in his middle twenties, not too long removed from his childhood in Mossbawn, County Derry, in Northern Ireland. That is the rural world where Heaney was born in 1939, and grew up as the oldest of nine children on his familys 50-acre farm. That world would remain at the heart of his poetry, even as he ventured far from his origins, geographically speaking. In 1972, he and his wife, Marie, moved to Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland, which has been his primary residence ever since. He spent decades as a university professor, at Queens University in Belfast, the University of California at Berkeley, Carysfort College in Dublin, and, of course, at Harvard, where he started teaching in 1982 and was named Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory in 1984.
Leading workshops in Cambridge every spring, Heaney became one of Harvards most recognizable citizens, the latest in a long line of major poets who have made the University their professional home. He retired from regular teaching in 1996 and was appointed Ralph Waldo Emerson poet in residence, an honor similar to those previously granted to Robert Frost and Robert Lowell. He continues to visit the campus for six weeks every other year.
Now, in 2006, Heaney has published his eleventh collection of poems, District and Circle. Forty years have passed since Death of a Naturalist, yet in a poem like A Shiver, we find Heaney still holding the stance he adopted in Digging:
The way you had to stand to swing the sledge,
Your two knees locked, your lower back shock-fast...
The way its iron head planted the sledge
Unyieldingly as a club-footed last;
The way you had to heft and then half-rest
Its gathered force like a long-nursed rage
About to be let fly....
The spade has been replaced by a sledgehammer, but Heaney is still the poet of labor, of contact with the earth. His father and grandfather are dead, but he has kept his promise to them.
Yet all this talk of obligations, of redress and government and credit, would be misleading if it suggested that Heaney is merely a didactic, moralizing poet. That the drama of the poets moral responsibilities is one of the major themes of his work cannot be denied, and a reader who is indifferent to it will not love Heaneyor Czeslaw Milosz, or Derek Walcott, or Joseph Brodsky, the poets who, with Heaney, have in our time done most to define and defend the significance of poetry. But Heaney is also, and primarily, a poet of pleasure. If he is like Wordsworth in his love of nature and his wise seriousness, he has also written that When it comes to poetic composition, one has to allow for the presence, even the pre-eminence, of what Wordsworth called the grand elementary principle of pleasure, and that pleasure comes from the doing-in-language of certain things. What makes Heaney a lovable poet, rather than just an admirable one, is that his sense of responsibility extends to pleasure itself. The poet, he knows, must delight and instruct; and without the delight, the instruction is worse than useless.
Ask anyone who reads Heaney what they enjoy in his poems, and the first answer will be his musicthe dense, rich, consonant-heavy music that draws on the strong rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poetry and the vernacular of Northern Ireland to create an instantly recognizable style. (His verse translation of the Old English masterpiece Beowulf landed on the New York Times bestseller list in 1999an achievement perhaps even more remarkable than winning the Nobel Prize.)
In his new book, District and Circle, we greet that music again on the first page like an old friend, in The Turnip-Snedder:
In an age of bare hands
and cast iron,
the clamp-on meat-mincer,
the double flywheeled water-pump,
it dug its heels in among wooden tubs
and troughs of slops,
hotter than body heat
in summertime, cold in winter
as winters body armour,
a barrel-chested breast-plate
on four braced greaves.
The lip-smacking assonance of clamp and pump; the curdled vowels in troughs and slops; the ramming together of nouns into substantial compounds like meat-mincer and breast-plateall of these are Heaneys trademarks. (What other poet could have written a poem called The Guttural Muse?) The choice of subject matter is just as characteristic. Heaney has often written about farming implements, from early poems like The Forge and Churning Day to more recent works like The Pitchfork and The Harrow-Pin.
For readers who have never come closer to a farm than a school field tripwhich is to say, for most American readerspoems like this offer the temptation of nostalgia, as though Heaney were simply the chronicler of a simpler, more traditional and concrete world. Certainly, among Irish poets of the generation after Heaneys, there has been a deliberate turning away from this kind of rural subject matterjust look at the acrobatic poems of Paul Muldoon, saturated with American pop culture, or the urbane, disillusioned poems of Dennis ODriscoll, set in offices and suburbs that could be in Detroit as easily as Dublin. (ODriscoll and Heaney are cooperating on a book-length interview that will be the closest thing to an autobiography Heaney has produced.)
Yet if Heaneys readers may be tempted to idealize his world, the poet himself never does. For him, rural Ireland is not a pastoral idyll but the theater of wrenching moral dramas, a place where history intrudes into the personal and threatens to obliterate it. That is because Heaney, as a Catholic native of Northern Ireland, was born into one of the most intransigent ethnic and religious conflicts in the world, and in a generation that would see it flare up into the terrible violence known as the Troubles.
That violence moved to the center of Heaneys work in North, his fourth collection of poems, which appeared in 1975. These poems, written in the years of Bloody Sunday and the acceleration of the IRA bombing campaign, show Heaney transforming himself from the celebrant of his native ground into its interrogator and elegist. The famous lines from Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces capture this new poetic persona:
I am Hamlet the Dane,
smeller of rot
in the state, infused
with its poisons,
pinioned by ghosts
murders and pieties,
coming to consciousness
by jumping in graves,
Heaneys most famous poetic symbol was born from this obsession. In a series of poems, from Bogland through The Tollund Man, Bog Queen, and The Grauballe Man, down to the new sequence The Tollund Man in Springtime in District and Circle, Heaney made the bogs of Northern Europe into a metaphor with endless implications. For a poet who began his career writing about digging the soil, the bog is an uncanny challenge, a kind of ground which you can dig forever without ever reaching bottom: The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage./The wet centre is bottomless. In this, it resembles the history of Ireland itself, a permanently fluid and unsettled past:
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
And when Heaney writes of the Iron Age corpses that archaeologists have dug up from bogs, he finds an all-too-apt metaphor for the way that his own land is sown with death: the actual weight/of each hooded victim,/slashed and dumped.
Yet even, or especially, in the bog poems, Heaney never allows the richness of his music, or the inventive precision of his images, to be silenced by the moral gravity of his subject. There is a Words worthian pleasure, of a saturnine, macabre kind, in the way Heaney translates the corpse of The Grauballe Man into language:
As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep
the black river of himself.
What was most crucial in Heaneys attitude toward the surrounding violence, however, was his refusal to be simply pinioned by ghosts. He insisted on finding a moral and poetic vantage point on the Troubles, rather than being drawn into its savage binaries. This was an especially important achievement for a poet who, from the beginning, felt such a strong sense of belonging and obligationto his family, his land, his community and the sounds of its speech. In his Nobel lecture, Heaney attested to his love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se, with a forthrightness that probably few American poets would hazard. Yet at the same time, he warned against elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems.
This carefully maintained balancebetween belonging and autonomy, loyalty and judgmentbecame the major subject of Heaneys middle period, starting with North and extending through The Haw Lantern (1987). On the one hand, he writes frankly about the pressures and exclusions he knew as a Catholic in Northern Ireland. His very name, the Irish Seamus rather than the English James, was a marker of identity in a divided land, as he suggests in a vignette from The Ministry of Fear:
Swung their crimson flashlamps, crowding round
The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing
The muzzle of a Sten gun in my eye:
Whats your name, driver?
Heaney has always made it one of his central responsibilities to affirm his membership in a group subjected to this kind of discrimination. My passports green./No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast The Queen, he wrote in 1983, demurring from his inclusion in an anthology of British poets. Yet he has also maintained, with a firmness not untouched by humor, his right to be critical of his own groupthat first principle of all genuine artists. No poet has been less tempted to write propagandistically, to submit to what Heaney has called the surge of disruptive feelings which [spring] too readily in the collective life.
That is why, of all the elegies Heaney has written for friends and acquaintances murdered in the Troubles, the most revealing of his own position is Casualty, from his 1979 collection Field Work. A casualty is not a hero or a martyr, but a bystanderin this case, a drunkard who was killed by his fellow Catholics when he violated an IRA curfew to go out to a bar. How culpable was he/That last night when he broke/Our tribes complicity? Heaney asks, and gives his indirect answer in the poems final stanza, when he remembers going fishing with the dead man:
I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond...
Heaneys longing for that haunt of freedom, that sublime irresponsibility, became more vocal in his work in the 1980s. Station Island, the visionary sequence that was the title poem of his 1984 volume, uses the idiom of Dantes Divine Comedy to stage a confrontation with all the claims Heaney was yearning to escape. Using a modified version of Dantes verse form, terza rima, Heaney imagines himself accosted, like Dante in Hell, by a series of ghosts, each representing a kind of obligation: a priest he knew as a child, a teacher, a cousin who was murdered by Protestant terrorists. Yet after allowing each of these voices to state its claims on his loyalty, Heaney concludes the sequence with a vision of James Joyce, the Irish writer who famously escaped his country, taking refuge in silence, exile, and cunning. Joyce, clearly identified though never actually named, leaves the poet with an exhortation to freedom:
Take off from here. And dont be so earnest,
so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
Youve listened long enough. Now strike your note.
This message of liberation, which the poet delivers to himself through the medium of Joycenothing that I had not known/ already, Heaney admitsdid not mark a sudden, radical break in his work. But it represents the planting of new seeds, whose crop would be harvested in his work during the next 20 years.
This change of direction was not an abdication of Heaneys earlier moral concerns in favor of some pure aestheticism. He remained devoted to truth-telling, and to the translation of truth into beauty through the alchemy of language. Instead, as was becoming for this deeply responsible poet, it meant a change in Heaneys understanding of his responsibility, of the subjects and listeners to whom he would hold himself answerable. Above all, it meant a willingness to turn from the local and political to the spiritual and universal. It was a turn that, Heaney declared in his Nobel lecture, felt like a liberation: Then finally and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place but in spite of them, I straightened up. I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as the murderous.
Heaneys most extended exploration of the marvelous is the long sequence called Squarings, from his 1991 volume, Seeing Things. The title Squarings gestures at the form of the poems, which are truncated sonnets, 12 lines each, that look like segmented squares on the page. But it is also a word drawn, like so many before it in Heaneys work, from the vocabulary of his childhood: Squarings? In the game of marbles, squarings/Were all those anglings, aimings, feints and squints/You were allowed before youd shoot. This is exactly the way, Heaney suggests, that he will approach matters of faith and doubt: not dogmatically but pragmatically, always willing to take a new look or try a new angle. The very form of the sequence enforces a kind of tentativeness: each of the 48 poems represents an opportunity for the poet to start over.
This pragmatism is what allows Squarings to be one of the most convincing spiritual poems of our time. It is convincing, above all, in its refusal to be convinced, and its unconcern with arguing the reader into agreement with any dogma. The sequence moves back and forth between metaphysical intuitions and the self-doubts that are inseparable from them in our age, which is not an age of faith. Heaney knows moments when the world seems to fall away, allowing the spirit its freedom:
Air spanned, passage waited, the balance rode,
Nothing prevailed, whatever was in store
Witnessed itself already taking place
In a time marked by assent and by hiatus.
This is a finely negative description of transcendence; it follows the medieval theological tradition of the via negativa, which defined God only by negatives. A moment when nothing prevailed is, to a poet who has seen all too much of the human need to dominate, a blessed moment. Yet this negative space, which makes room for a positive presence, cannot establish itself with the reliability of religious belief. Whats the use of a held note or held line/That cannot be assailed for reassurance? Heaney asks himself.
In the end, like many people, what Heaney can look to for reassurance is art itself. In order that human beings bring about the most radiant conditions for themselves to inhabit, he wrote in the essay Joy or Night, it is essential that the vision of reality which poetry offers be transformative, more than just a printout of the given circumstances of its time and place. The kind of transformation poetry offers cannot create another world; but in going beyond this world, through surprising perception and powerful language, it holds open the possibility of transcendence. This is the secular miracle that Heaney describes in The Rain-Stick, the first poem in his 1996 collection, The Spirit Level. The rain-stick is a cactus stalk, a product of the desert, but when it is upended it releases a sound of Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash. It is not the kind of water you can actually drink, Heaney acknowledges, but while it lasts it offers a kind of refreshment:
Who cares if all the music that transpires
Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop.
This vision of heaven is the fitting counterpart to the vision of earth that Heaney offered in his early poems. The way he allows that consolation to hover between metaphor and metaphysics becomes especially moving in the poems of District and Circle, where the poet, now 67 years old, is increasingly occupied with last things. In Quitting Time, he once again likens the work of poetry to physical labor, inviting the reader to see his portrait of an aging farmer as a veiled self-portrait:
a home-based man at home
In the end with little. Except this same
Night after nightness, redding up the work,
The song of a tubular steel gate in the dark
As he pulls it to and starts his uphill trek.
District and Circle often puts the reader in mind of that gate swinging closed, with its redding up of themes Heaney has explored for a lifetime. This is the autumnal effect of poems like Anahorish 1944 and Polish Sleepers, which look back to the poets earliest memories from the World War II years; and still more of the addresses to friends and poets recently deceased, such as Stern, dedicated to Ted Hughes, and the moving sequence Out of This World, subtitled in memory of Czeslaw Milosz.
But the last word in Heaneys new book is, characteristically, affirmativethe kind of genuine affirmation only available to a man who has taken full account of the worlds negative. In The Blackbird of Glanmore, Heaney looks back to one of his best early poems, Mid-Term Break from Death of a Naturalist, which hauntingly described the coffin of his young brother: A four-foot box, a foot for every year. Now, a lifetime later, he remembers a neighbours words/Long after the accident, who claimed to have seen a blackbird near the Heaneys farm before the boys deatha folk omen. Seeing another blackbird now, On the grass when I arrive, he and the reader are forced to wonder if it is a harbinger of another death. Yet Heaney responds to it with defiant gladness:
Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak
On the grass when I arrive,
In the ivy when I leave.
Heaney wants us to hear the echo, in these lines, of the famous speech from act III of Measure for Measure, in which the Duke advises the condemned Claudio: Be absolute for death; either death or life/Shall thereby be the sweeter. And Heaneys delighted re-echoing of the blackbirds song, in this tattoo of clicking k sounds, shows that he has proved Shakespeare right: by embracing the bird and all it represents, he has infused a new sweetness into his own verse. It is just the latest, and surely not the last, of the reconciliations Seamus Heaney has spent almost half a century effectingbetween public and private, history and spirit, art and life.
Adam Kirsch ’97, a contributing editor of this magazine, is the author of The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets (2005) and the book critic of the New York Sun.
Seamus Heaney, recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in 1939 into a large Catholic farming family in County Derry, Northern Ireland. From the outset, Heaney�s poetry has negotiated the concerns of a divided land and its religious conflicts, the poet's approach being to delve into history and myth, all with a keen ear for the rhythms of Irish speech and for the rich possibilities of poetic language. First appeared in Heaney's first poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966), "Digging" can be described as a vocation poem, in which a poet declares a firm decision to pursue a life in writing. Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is another well-known example, as is Yeats's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree", in which the poet, standing on the roadside�in what is generally understood to be Victorian London�announces his intent to leave its "pavements gray", at once, for the idyllic, pastoral beauty of his native land, in response to a calling heard "in the deep heart's core" (Yeats 16).
In a sense, such a poem functions as a defiant public defense of personal values and as a time capsule, which exposes the young poet's concerns and aspirations�and the signs of creative talent yet-to-be-refined�to the criticism of latter times. This criticism may even be the poet's own, as the years go by; Heaney himself has demonstrated a certain embarrassed ambivalence towards "Digging" as something of a rough apprentice-piece, which he once dubbed "a big coarse-grained navvy of a poem", while, on other occasions, he has acknowledged its "seminal" status in his development as a poet (Parker 62).1 Ultimately, however, Heaney acknowledges the place of "Digging" in his oeuvre through his actions, by making it the first poem of "all his various collections and selections" (Frazier 16).
As we shall see, the poem gives voice to Heaney's desire to explore, or delve into, the past, while serving also to as an apologia for the literary life on which he was about to embark. "Digging" shifts seamlessly to childhood, and, through memory and allusion, to the more distant past, evoking the continuity of life in a small farming community, and, within that community, the importance of the family and its sense of history and time, defined by a certain permanence over the long years. In the opening lines, the poet-speaker situates himself at a particular moment�presumably, early adulthood, which is also the conventional climactic moment in the bildungsroman, marking a decisive turning point in the narrative trajectory of the narrator-hero's life. Here, it is the young man, upstairs at his writing desk�pen-in-hand, "snug as a gun"�while his father works below in the family�s ancestral farm work:
The speaker's familiarity with the processes of farming life is illustrated in the initial description of his father digging, the implicit dignity or properness of the activity implicit even in the adjective "clean" used to describe the "rasping sound" of "the spade." Of course, this poem, like any literary work�including those which are rooted in, or lay claim to, historical or biographical reality�remain works of creative writing, which often depart from factuality. In these terms, the poet-narrator cannot be uncritically equated with the biographical Heaney, whose father was no quintessential, Irish potato farmer, but, in fact, traded in cattle (Parker 1). Having said this, however, the experience evoked in "Digging" is no less true of rural Ireland, culturally or historically speaking, given the role of the potato crop in Irish history and culture.
The speaker's description of the "clean rasping sound / When the spade sinks into gravelly ground" tells us that he has grown up with the sounds of farm-work. As a poet, too, Heaney works�and works upon his readers�with sound. Heaney's use of onomatopoeia is one of his defining traits as a poet (Murphy 9); in this poem, we can hear how it works when he reproduces "the rasping sound" of the spade is brought to life in the words "gravelly" and "ground� (emphases mine). We are, thus, placed there, in his slippers, as it were, as he works upstairs by the window.
But, the poet-narrator's familiarity with the sounds of digging is also consistent with the continuity of farm life. In fact, continuity is manifested linguistically, space and time being conflated when the father's "straining rump / Bends low, comes up twenty years away". In other words, memory allows a slippage into the past through the sameness of repeated actions, across the space of the field, which unites the present under observation and the remembered past of the narrator's childhood.
Another nostalgic, eulogistic aspect of the poem is evident in the description of the father's digging, in his younger years, remembered by the speaker�"The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft / Against the inside knee was levered firmly"�which underlines the "precise technique" involved (Mathias 18). Apart from showing an appreciation of the effort and skill involved, there is also a respectful, knowing preciseness in the use of vocabulary associated even with what may seem so basic a tool as a spade: the "lug", the "shaft". This attention to the details of work shows the poet�s recognition of the complexity�and, hence, the dignity�of the working world of his forefathers. Such importance, of course, is not always recognized, nor honored, in the elitist intellectual milieu, so that, although the poet decides to follow a new path, he does so without denigrating his heritage, or his forebears, whom he acknowledges and honors.
Needless to say, some critics find some of Heaney�s lines a little forced, finding, for instance, that the poet "protests too much ... as though the bold, untroubled confidence�'I'll dig with it'�belies an underlying fear that in writing poetry he'll be departing, rather than continuing, the family (and cultural) tradition" (Shapiro 14). Arguably, it is also possible to suspect some false modesty on the poet-narrator's part, so that in his homage�perhaps "hom(m)age" would be more appropriate�to the Heaney patriarchs of the past, his ostensible self-deprecation in stating that he "has no spade to follow men like this" is not entirely sincere. The image of the father's "straining rump", for instance, is hardly graceful, and may render the man into something of a carnivalesque figure of fun with his backside in the air; it may contain some irony, which, though good-humored, would be no less patronizing.
Of course, this is just to say that the poem is not as straightforward, or simplistic, as it might at first appear; but no interpretation can be entirely conclusive, or final, and, perhaps, it is enough that the young poet praises his forefathers in a declaration of personal origin and future direction. In this regard, Heaney has explained that he felt the pressure of "'the generations of rural ancestors�not illiterate, but not literary'", which produced in him a certain doubt about himself and his planned career as an artist (Parker 64).
Similarly, the speaker's awe for his father's digging skills�evident in his homespun exclamation, "By God, the old man could handle a spade"�becomes the basis for further celebration of the family�seen, it should be stressed, in exclusively patriarchal terms: "Just like his old man"; for, as one critic has rightly observed, "Digging" is rather "macho, melodramatically so" (Morrison 26). However, these lines also emphasize a working heritage. Beyond the family-unit stands a community, which the poet implicitly enrolls into this celebration of his forefathers, and, very significantly, of their work ethic: "My grandfather could cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner's bog."
Though a reader could well consider the possibility of competition, rivalry�even envy or resentment�on the part of those other men, bested by Grandfather, even then, there would implicitly have been a shared value-system�an ethos founded on the need to work to survive in a poor rural community, together with respect for hard work, and admiration, however grudging, for those willing and able to work hard. It is success in such terms of masculinized hard work that our narrator accords his father, and his grandfather before him, in a line that, by extension, points to the more distant past. As we shall see, Heaney's portrayal of an Irish tradition of hard work is of immense political importance.
The self-reliant nature of the traditional rural community is also revealed when the narrator recalls taking his grandfather some milk "in a bottle / Corked sloppily with paper". The milk, of course, was not purchased in a shop. It was not bottled�properly capped in a commercial dairy, which, in the context of Ireland's colonial history of exploitation by the English, the reader would expect to belong to the English, or to the Anglo-Irish elite, epitomized by the figure of the absentee landlord�perhaps reaping the benefits from in London, in what some historians have described as "a kind of bastardized feudalism" (Cleary 102). Rather, the milk most likely came from one of the family's own cows.
By extension, his grandfather's character as a hardworking man is also underlined, as he stops only briefly to drink his milk before resuming work "right away", efficient and industrious in his manner: "Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods / Over his shoulder." Moreover, this milk-drinking Irishman is a negation of a particularly persistent stereotype about the Irish, namely, the narrative of the self-created misery of a nation of gregarious and lively men, regrettably too fond of the bottle, a weakness which leads to heartache for them, their whining, long-suffering wives, and the hungry children, who weep when Da' drinks his wages.3
The question of the exact nature of Ireland's history as an English colony continues to be debated. Conferences have been held in the last few years to explore the postcolonial turn in Irish studies, while academic collections have been published only relatively recently with such titles as Ireland and Postcolonial Theory (Carroll & King). In these terms, the present paper demonstrates the rightness of Werner Huber's assessment, made in this journal, that, given the fundamental centrality of "the colonial/postcolonial quest for identity" at the heart of Irish literature, this literature should be examined from "the perspective of 'postcolonial discourse'" through "the methodical application of parameters easily derived from the study of other postcolonial literatures", including "structures such as center/margin, identity/alterity", and so forth (Huber).
Thus, in the pages that follow, this paper will approach this key poem in Heaney's oeuvre by highlighting its highly significant function as a postcolonial/anti-colonial response to British imperialist definitions of the Irish identity�in particular, postcolonial challenging of imperialist binary contrasts between Self and (colonial) Other, involving the ideal of the work ethic�and through comparison with other examples of similar cultural-identity redefinition in a range of postcolonial and minority literatures, thereby demonstrating the rightness of approaching Irish literature-and-culture as an area of postcolonial studies. Of course, questions are raised by some scholars about whether it is legitimate to consider Ireland's experience of colonialism in the same terms as the treatment that Native Americans, Africans, and people of other races, suffered at the hands of various European nations.4 Here, language becomes one of the main focal points. Along with Ireland's geographical location and the fact that the Irish are of European stock, there is the use of the English language, the mastery of which is most symbolically manifested by the roll-call of great writers over the centuries, which may leave many with a sense of Irish inclusion in English cultural life, and, hence, of the exceptionality of the Irish in the context of colonial history. Faced with the history of atrocities across the world, imperialist offences which included the slave trade, persecution and genocide�some scholars would argue that the Irish experience does not belong in the main field of colonial and postcolonial studies.
But, it is worth noting that that colonial oppression can take many forms. Furthermore, European colonial practice, where the British were concerned, was partly developed, and, in a sense, perfected, in Ireland, for later exportation to other lands�so that, to quote the title of a recent article on the subject, Ireland functioned as "A Laboratory for Empire" (Ohlmeyer). For that matter, it was commonplace in Victorian times�the highpoint of British colonialism in Africa and the East�for the Irish to be included in the Orientalist discourse that went hand-in-hand with imperialist practice, and which "asserted and highlighted the lack of civilization" and the alleged "racial 'primitive' similarities of the colonized peoples" (Lennon 136).5
To expand on the subject of imperialism and culture, in White Writing (1988), J.M. Coetzee discusses the attitudes expressed by South Africa's Dutch settlers, commencing in the mid-seventeenth century, toward the black people whom they found living in the Cape. The Hottentots were described in various terms as lacking civilization�dirty and immoral, and exhibiting unclean and repulsive eating habits (Coetzee 16). But, beyond this issue, a central accusation against the Africans�which was to be instrumental to self-serving, European perspectives of the natives as undeserving of self-rule�was "that they did, or seemed to do, so little with their time" (Coetzee 11). As Coetzee explains, this accusation of idleness had moral�even criminal�connotations in the context of early modern European culture (Coetzee 21); the accusation of being "idle", therefore, became the basis of the justification for imposing white authority over the African natives.
The process of cultural justification of colonial practice described by Coetzee was part of an ideological rhetoric which would later be summed up under the notion of the white man's burden�the paternalistic idea, however hypocritical it may have been to varying degrees�that white people, as fathers, had a duty to help people in other countries�the childish, allegedly uncivilized ones�by taking Western progress, civilization and order to them.
In addition, where the English were concerned, the nation's self-image as culturally superior was closely linked to their religious identity, as manifested in the concept of the Protestant work ethic, which viewed a dedication to hard work, and the resulting material success�signs of God�s favor�as particularly Protestant values in which they believed, and, indeed, as virtues which they claimed to possess. This belief was to be reborn in America, where it contributed to the ideal of the self-made man as most famously embodied by Benjamin Franklin�albeit, in less-religious, and more utilitarian terms�both through the example of his success, and as articulated in such publications as Poor Richard's Almanack (1738-52), and his posthumously published autobiography (completed ca. 1771-1790).6
In similar terms, Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957)�a classic work of literary criticism, informed by the author's familiarity with the economic theory of Max Weber�underscored the cultural significance in English literary history of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719); in Watt�s formulation, the novel's eponymous hero�a castaway who becomes a little king in his own island, and keeps excellent records of his possessions, "methodically" gained with the help of his man, Friday�had "been very appropriately used by many economic theorists as their illustration of homo economicus" (Watt 69).
However, the negative construction of supposedly uncivilized, colonial subjects, particularly their inherent lack of seriousness and maturity�and the implied contrast with a civilized and competent imperialist's self�can be traced as far back as the 1580s, in the reign of Elizabeth I, when England was consolidating its control over Ireland. Thus, Andrew Trollope, in a letter to Francis Walshingham, described the Irish as "not thrifty and civil or human creatures, but heathen or rather savage and brute beasts", who had "degenerated from all manhood [and] humanity."7 We may be tempted to focus on Trollope's shocking denial of the Irish people's humanity�their allegedly bestial nature. However, we should not be distracted from the implications of the two initial terms: "thrifty" and "civil"�the qualities of basic economic sense and civility, which the Irish are claimed to lack.
As Canny further explains, English justifications of colonial rule over the Irish sometimes made reference to a persistent the idea "that Ireland was well endowed with natural wealth", so that the "failure of the inhabitants ... to exploit these resources was further proof of their barbarism" (173). Clearly, this is the fledgling idea of the white man's burden centuries before Queen Victoria of Great Britain, or King Leopold II of Belgium. The latter, of course, played a leading role in launching the "scramble for Africa"; apart from his self-serving arguments about the Europe's moral obligation to save Africans from Muslim slave-traders, in a more candid if cynical moment�in the Berlin Conference of 1884-85�he gloated in the opportunity to get what he called "'a slice of this magnificent African cake'" (qtd. Pakenham 22). But, the propagandist discourse of benevolent, paternalistic rule over races of colonial subjects in need of guidance and protection�even from themselves�was such that any resistance by the natives was deemed the action of an ungrateful, unnatural child deserving punishment.
Of course, Heaney's nostalgic evocation of the continuity of farming life is framed by the refrain about the pen's legitimacy as a tool, in place of the farmer�s spade: "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests." The additional clause ("snug as a gun"), given added emphasis by the crude-but-effective use of the semi-colon rather than a comma, also introduces another possibility open to a young Irish-Catholic man in the 1960s: that of violence, making the pen, therefore, both a tool and a weapon�not only an alternative to the spade, but also, implicitly, the gun of a member of the IRA (Frazier 29).
As a political defense of the rural Irish-Catholic community from which he came, Heaney's "Digging" provides a clue to the poet's motivation in taking up the pen, and hints at the service as a cultural ambassador for the cause of the Irish, that the poet has accomplished as a result of his international reputation as a poet�epitomized, of course, by the Nobel Prize in Literature�and all the more significant considering that Heaney writes poetry rather than prose; this is certainly something that he could never have done with a gun.
The portrait in "Digging" of a sober, industrious, and self-reliant Irish peasantry, therefore, not only reverses some longstanding and very damaging stereotypes about the Irish�of a people's poverty and misery, blamed on the English, but also tearfully portrayed by many-a-writer as the self-inflicted legacy of irresponsibility, and, in particular, of a scourge of endemic alcoholism. In addition, apart from reversing a stereotype, this is also the appropriation of a positive stereotype. For Heaney's Irish-Catholic turf-cutters are exemplars of an ideal of hard work, or work ethic, which, therefore, can no longer be labeled Protestant.
Heaney's technique�indeed, it would not be misguided to see it as a political tactic�has analogues in the work of a range of postcolonial and minority writers. For instance, in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), the pre-colonial hero, Okonkwo's background as a brave warrior, who had killed five men in tribal warfare, is mentioned very briefly, while several chapters are devoted to the novel's account of Okonkwo's struggles to build a big farm in order to become a great man in his community, a project which required him to fight against the odds�borrowing at interest; struggling against bad weather, which destroyed his first crop; saddled with a lazy father�with only his will to drive him on to greatness. Okonkwo, thus, becomes a self-made man, the epitome of the values and virtues that colonial subjects were alleged to lack, and which the imperial nations claimed to embody.
Presenting interesting similarities, there is the figure of Frederick Douglass (ca. 1818-1895), who was born into slavery in antebellum Maryland but proceeded to become a gifted speaker for abolition following his escape to the North, and, indeed, a celebrated orator, who advocated not only civil rights for African-Americans�both before and after the Civil War�but also causes as varied as women's suffrage and Irish free rule. A major tool in his self-construction�aside from his almost single-handed publication of the abolitionist paper, The North Star (1847-1851), subsequently named the Frederick Douglass' Paper, which ran in the years 1851-60 (Shortell 83)�were his autobiographies, the first of which was published seven years after his escape: the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892). Douglass's Narrative deliberately evoked another seminal work of American letters discussed above, namely Benjamin Franklin's autobiography.8 Thus, Douglass, the self-educated former slave, and tireless campaigner, stressed his self-conscious pride when he took his first menial job as an independent economic agent�"dirty and hard work" though it was to load a small cargo ship "with a load of oil"�conscious that, having gained his freedom, he was his finally "own master", entitled to "the reward" for his own efforts (Douglass 99).
Indeed, in a point of convergence with Heaney's equation of the pen�and, hence, authorship�as an alternative form both of work and of violent manifestations of militancy, a fascinating case has been made with regard to such works as Douglass's autobiographies that "For the American slave, storytelling becomes a kind of work, gaining status in conjunction with the slave narrator's redefinition of labor", a redefinition essentially founded on the fact that the slave works "for himself", his personal account constituting an act of "labor against objectification" (Cassuto 249). Work, therefore, whether Douglass's first menial employment, or the work of authorship, in which his personal journey was itself described, were the steps he took on his self-portrayed path towards success as a hardworking and disciplined individual. Tellingly, one of Douglass�s most popular speeches, written "in the late 1850s", but which he repeatedly delivered as a professional speaker in the years after the Civil War, and which was particularly well-received by white audiences, was titled "Self-Made Men" (Andrews 13).
Despite differences discussed here in the work of writers as diverse as a nineteenth-century African-American, a Nigerian in the 1950s, and an Irishman responding, in the 1960s, to conditions in British-occupied Northern Ireland, they all clearly exemplify common, crucially important continuities, namely, the cultural appropriations by writers from oppressed groups of the precise discourses of racial or cultural superiority used against their peoples as the justification for colonial practice. These are writers who, by these means, subvert such imperialist myths, producing counter-narratives in which the virtues of the colonial subject are demonstrated. The ease with which Heaney's "crude but effective manifesto", to borrow the words of John Wilson Foster (7), can be discussed in the same vein as such a range of works of anti-colonial and progressive writing, ultimately shows the appropriateness of exploring Irish cultural history within the wider field of colonial and post-colonial studies.
Achebe, Chinua. (1958) Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann.
Andrews, William L. (1996) "Introduction" to The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, ed. William L. Andrews. New York & Oxford: Oxford UP, pp. 3-19.
Canny, Nicholas. (1987) "Identity Formation in Ireland: The Emergence of the Anglo-Irish", in Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800, ed. Nicholas Canny and Anthony Padgen. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, pp. 159-212.
Cassuto, Leonard. (1996) "Frederick Douglass and the Work of Freedom: Hegel's Master-Slave Dialectic in the Fugitive Slave Narrative", Prospects 21: 229-59.
Cleary, Joe. (2003) "Misplaced Ideas? Colonialism, Location and Dislocation in Irish Studies", in Theorizing Ireland, ed. Claire Connolly, Readers in Cultural Criticism. New York & Basingstoke: Palgrave, Macmillan, pp. 91-104.
Coetzee, J. M. (1988) White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa. New Haven: Yale UP.
Douglass, Frederick. (1999) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, ed. Deborah E. McDowell, Oxford World's Classics. Oxford & New York: Oxford UP.
Foster, John Wilson. (1995) The Achievement of Seamus Heaney. Dublin: The Lilliput Press.
Frazier, Adrian. (2001) "Anger and Nostalgia: Seamus Heaney and the Ghost of the Father", Eire-Ireland: Journal of Irish Studies 36.3-4 [Fall-Winter]: 7-38.
Heaney, Seamus. (1990) New Selected Poems, 1966-1987. London & Boston: Faber and Faber.
Huber, Werner. "EESE Strategy Statement No. 5: Irish Studies", Erfurt Electronic Studies in English. Online: