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Anahorish And Digging | Comparative Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1573 words Published: 10th May 2017

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Anahorish and Digging are two poems written by acclaimed Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, from the 1972 anthology “Wintering Out” and the 1966 anthology “Death of a Naturalist”. Anahorish was the name of the school Heaney attended (the Anglicized version of the Irish word “anachgeeor uisce” meaning place of cold water), and focuses on Heaney going back to visit his old school, going back in time to make sense of the present, whereas Digging is about Heaney expressing his admiration of his forefathers, and how they dug for survival, whereas he uses his pen as opposed to their spades to dig into the past of his fellow Irish people. I have chosen to compare Anahorish with Digging as I feel that Digging shares many common traits with Anahorish such as the references to land, the reminiscing of the poet, the slow, reflective language, and yet they differ, particularly context-wise. Both poems share the key theme of reminiscing/looking back in time, and the earth, and can be analysed in terms of sharing this key theme, as well as context and language.

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Both Digging and Anahorish employ the two themes of looking back in time, and the earth. This is immediately evident in both poems, where in Digging Heaney instantly describes how his father’s “spade sinks into gravelly ground”, whilst in Anahorish, land references are instantaneously made “the first hill in the world where springs washed into the shiny grass and darkened cobbles in the bed of the lane”. “Cobbles” in particular has a strong Irish cultural reference attached to it. We can now see that a direct comparison can be made between the two poems, as they both have a focus on the land, just in different contexts. In Digging, Heaney needs to vividly describe the land so he can transport the reader to what it was like for the potato diggers of Northern Ireland, and how harsh their conditions were; the intense description of how Heaney saw his father’s “straining rump among the flowerbeds” also conveys to the reader how clear this memory is to the poet, and how it must be imprinted in his mind. Excerpts from the poem such as how “he rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep” indicates to the reader how painful and laborious this work must have been; the adjective “rooted”, as well as being a typical “Heaney-esque” device in which the poet uses nouns as verbs, also has very negative connotations to it, being quite an emotive word as it expresses feelings of suffering and very hard work. In Anahorish, Heaney uses the land as a representation of what he remembers, using the landmarks he sees to inspire his memories of his old primary school, helping him to delve deep into his past so he can make sense of future. Andrew Green notes that “the land, in Heaney’s early poetry, represents many things, but always encapsulates a continuity of experience. Whether he is searching for personal meaning or attempting to locate a source and possible context for the troubles that plague his native Ireland, he finds his language and inspiration firmly rooted in the land. So integral is the part it plays in the verse of the early collection that we can see in the earth no mere means to end but an end in itself”. To summarise Green’s points, Heaney often uses the land as a source of inspiration, a method of evoking some of his past memories, helping him explore his past and assist in determining his present. Clearly, the land is of great importance to Heaney, which is expressed through to the reader.

Both poems also explore Heaney’s reminiscing. In Digging Heaney clearly goes back in time to remember his grandfather digging the land “My grandfather cut more turf in a day than any other man on Toner’s bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle corked sloppily with paper”; in this context, Heaney recalls this moment to stress to the reader the strong ethics instilled in his grandfather (the excerpt goes on to say how his grandfather would have one drink of milk, then get straight back to digging). However, in Anahorish, Heaney’s going back in time is of a much greater importance. He describes how the springs used to wash into the shiny grass; clearly, Heaney is trying to remember aspects of his school, in the hopes he can remember who he once was, and thus remember who he is again – Heaney is using his history to find himself. It could be stated therefore, that a third theme in both poems is a loss of identity – for Heaney in Digging he feels almost uncomfortable with himself for not digging like his forefathers, whereas in Anahorish the poet is unsure of who he is, taking measures such as visiting his old school when he was a childhood, and using the land to evoke early memories and rediscover himself; as stated in The Times Magazine article entitled “The Poet”, “those links to what’s gone before – physical, psychological – are the power behind much of his work”. Clearly, the land has a direct link to his physical and psychological memories/psyche, and Heaney therefore uses the land to inspire his poetry and memories. So, even though both poems share the same themes, reminiscing and the earth are used in different contexts.

Clearly, both Anahorish and Digging take place in different circumstances. For one, in Digging Heaney is using the poem as a way to almost hail the workmen of Northern Ireland, praising them for their patience and strong work ethic. Clearly, “the living roots of the poem both become, for the reader, symbols of the poet’s memory” (Andrew Green); indeed, the poem is essentially one long recollection of his forefather’s living, and Heaney is using it to bring attention to the plight of the Irish workers. At the time of the poem, it can be assumed that there was a potato famine in Ireland, resulting in mass death by starvation, due to the fact that the potato was the food that the majority of the impoverished Irish survived on; it’s loss was devastating. In Anahorish, Heaney is presumably in a fragile state of mind, perhaps unsure of who he is, so he goes to Anahorish to see if he can stir up any memories, and hope that the site will help him find himself again.

In both poems, the language is relatively slow and reflective. The vocabulary in Digging is descriptive, the poet clearly able to vividly recount his experiences watching his father dig “the coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft against the inside knee was levered firmly”; therefore we can clearly see that Heaney watching his father dig left a lasting impression on him. Therefore, the language shows how vivid Heaney’s memories are. This is also evident in Anahorish where Heaney can remember the “after-image of lamps swung through the yards on winter evenings”. In Digging, Heaney notes how he once “carried him milk in a bottle corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up to drink it, then fell to right away nicking and slicing neatly”. The juxtaposing terms of “sloppily” and “neatly” in Digging reinforce how at this time in the poem, Heaney is a young boy, with his clumsy manner, whilst his grandfather is an experienced, concise man, who has been digging for many years. So in Digging, contrast is used to emphasise Heaney’s childlike immaturity when he was a boy, again, a clear allusion to the poem’s theme of reminiscing. In Anahorish, there is a clear contrast “to break the light ice at wells and dunghills”. It can be assumed that this conflict of “ice” and “dunghill” is meant to act as a break, a reminder to the reader that Heaney was looking back into time, and now has to return back to the present. Both poems also use onomatopoeia, Digging describing the “squelch and slap of soggy peat” and Anahorish noting how the “springs washed into the shiny grass”. These onomatopoeia’s are particularly important in helping create atmosphere, and involve the reader in Heaney’s train of thought; onomatopoeic words “partially close the gap between language and reality” as said by Bernard Richards, who further notes that “Seamus Heaney is a master of sound effects”. An extended metaphor is also present in each poem. In Digging, the entire text is an extended metaphor for Heaney digging into the past using his poetry; the phrase “Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it” perfectly encapsulates this sentiment. Meanwhile, in Anahorish, the excerpt “springs washed into the shiny grass” is a metaphor for the passing of time, continuing on in the poem, as the whole point of visiting Anahorish was to arouse any memories which are too deep to stir though thought alone.

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Both poems are very similar, in which they both express the themes of reminiscing, the earth, and use a lot of the same linguistic techniques. However, in terms of context, the two poems differ substantially; Heaney clearly feels the same sentiments in both, a desire to use the Irish landscape to evoke deep memories, which he communicates to the reader so he can find himself.


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