At a potato digging

Report
At a Potato Digging
by Seamus Heaney
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Context
• The poem deals with two different potato
harvests. One is the harvest from the present
day (written in the ’60s) 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.
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Potato Famine
• The Irish Potato Famine occurred in Ireland in
1845-49 when the potato crop failed in
successive years.
• As a direct consequence of the famine, Ireland's
population of almost 8,400,000 in 1844 had
fallen to 6,600,000 by 1851.
• About 1,100,000 people died from starvation or
from typhus and other famine-related diseases.
• The number of Irish who emigrated during the
famine may have reached 1.5 million.
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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.
AT A POTATO DIGGING
I
A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.
Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A higgledy line from hedge to headland;
Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand
Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.
Heads bow, trucks bend, hands fumble towards the black
Mother. Processional stooping through the turf
Turns work to ritual. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
II
Flint-white, purple. They lie scattered
Like inflated pebbles. Native
to the blank hutch of clay
where the halved seed shot and clotted
these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem
the petrified hearts of drills. Split
by the spade, they show white as cream.
The second section of
the poem involves the
healthy potatoes being
described.
Good smells exude from crumbled earth.
The rough bark of humus erupts
knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.
The third section writes
about the famine of the
past. Fungus destroyed
the entire crop
of potatoes and this
happened for three
consecutive years.
III
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in 'forty-five,'
wolfed the blighted root and died.
The new potato, sound as stone,
putrified when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.
Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.
A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.
Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus in filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore.
IV
Under a white flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
White bread and tea in bright canfuls
Are served for lunch. Dead-beat, they flop
Down in the ditch and take their fill,
Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;
Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.
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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.
AT A POTATO DIGGING
I
A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.
Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A higgledy line from hedge to headland;
Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand
Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.
Heads bow, trucks bend, hands fumble towards the black
Mother. Processional stooping through the turf
The first and last
sections have a loose
iambic metre and a
clear ABAB rhyme
scheme - which breaks
down only in the
poem's final line.
Why might Heaney do
this?
Turns work to ritual. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
II
Flint-white, purple. They lie scattered
Like inflated pebbles. Native
to the blank hutch of clay
where the halved seed shot and clotted
these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem
the petrified hearts of drills. Split
by the spade, they show white as cream.
The second section has
fewer rhymes in an
irregular pattern. Lines and
sections run into each
other.
Good smells exude from crumbled earth.
The rough bark of humus erupts
knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.
III
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in 'forty-five,'
wolfed the blighted root and died.
The new potato, sound as stone,
putrified when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.
Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.
A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.
Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus in filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore.
IV
Under a white flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
White bread and tea in bright canfuls
Are served for lunch. Dead-beat, they flop
Down in the ditch and take their fill,
Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;
Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.
H
The third section
uses rhyme in
pairs: AABB and so
on.
We now rely on
technology to dig
the land. Is this
natural?
Vivid image of
the power of
the machine
over the land.
Man’s power
over nature?
‘stoop’ Might
this suggest
prostration as
well as the
back
breaking
labour?
Wreck the rows in which the potatoes are
planted. May also suggest the routine of
the work.
I
A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.
Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A higgledy line from hedge to headland;
Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand
Could this also
have military
connotations?
Struggling to
live of the land.
Suggests the
vast number of
labourers
involved
Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
The work is
To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.
hard and
Heads bow, trucks bend, hands fumble towards the black uncomfortable.
Mother. Processional stooping through the turf
Turns work to ritual. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
Enjambment at this and other points
in the poem suggest the
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unending nature of the work
Why else might
Heaney have
chosen this
phrase?
Links the people to
nature both as animals
and as a description of
the land.
Why crows?
Scavengers?
‘Birds of Death’
A full basket of
potatoes to be
stored
Proud of their
labours and
enjoying a short
break
Again the labour is referred to in
terms of a battle. Perhaps a battle
for survival?
I
The workers
could be seen
as soldiers in
the fight
A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.
Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A higgledy line from hedge to headland;
Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand
Emphasises
the sheer
number of them
involved
Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
The respite is
To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.
brief and they
Heads bow, trucks bend, hands fumble towards the black
‘stumble’ back to
Mother. Processional stooping through the turf
Turns work to ritual. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
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work,
emphasising the
exhausting
nature what they
do
What is the effect of
this metaphor on the
reader?
Gives a strong
visual image of
the land after
the drills are
wrecked.
Does it suggest the skill
of the people?
Bowed in prayer?
I
A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.
Prostration?
Is this an almost
religious
experience?
Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A higgledy line from hedge to headland;
Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand
Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
Is this a pagan
To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.
Heads bow, trucks bend, hands fumble towards the black God that they
fear?
Mother. Processional stooping through the turf
Giver of life.
Protector.
Acknowledgement
of importance
Turns work to ritual. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
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Is Heaney
suggesting that
God forsook
them in the
famine?
Assonance and alliteration stress the
natural links between the potatoes and the
land
The second
section has fewer
rhymes in an
irregular pattern,
perhaps
mimicking the
irregular sizes and
shapes of the
potatoes
Potatoes piled as
bodies once were
Repeated image of death linked to
the potato across generations by
memories of the famine
II
Flint-white, purple. They lie scattered
Like inflated pebbles. Native
to the blank hutch of clay
where the halved seed shot and clotted
these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem
the petrified hearts of drills. Split
by the spade, they show white as cream.
Good smells exude from crumbled earth.
The rough bark of humus erupts
knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.
Each year the potato harvest can be an anxious
process, as the workers smell the potatoes and feel
them for firmness - making sure they are free of the
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blight.
Heart of the land
Images of death
abound once more
and these are
echoed in the next
stanza about the
famine
Repeated image
but this time it is
starving people
who are ‘skulls’
and ‘blind-eyed’
’45 needs no year
date because the
event is such a
part of Ireland’s
social
consciousness
Animal savagery
suggesting the
hardness of the
times
III
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in 'forty-five,'
wolfed the blighted root and died.
‘balanced’ implies
the weakness of
people and their
skeletal hunger.
The new potato, sound as stone,
putrified when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.
Higgledy people
reflect the higgledy
lines in which they
work now (section
1)
Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.
A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.
Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus in filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the
H running sore.
They still ate the
bad potatoes but
couldn’t survive
The language is
incredibly negative
and harsh. Much
like the times they
are describing
Ambiguous phrase,
the people rotted
along with the
potatoes and died
III
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in 'forty-five,'
wolfed the blighted root and died.
The new potato, sound as stone,
putrified when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.
Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.
A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.
Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus in filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the
H running sore.
Heaney describes
the false hope of a
sound new potato
which rots and dies
in the pit
Vivid, visual account
of the physical effects
of the famine
III
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in 'forty-five,'
wolfed the blighted root and died.
The new potato, sound as stone,
putrified when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.
Snipping,
metaphorical beaks of
hunger attack the guts
of the hungry.
Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.
Could this link back to
the images of crows
earlier on?
A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.
Suggesting hard work
Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus in filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the
H running sore.
Marked with sorrow?
‘wicker’ emphasises
the simplicity of their
lives but also links
back to their ‘wicker
creels’. Both are
devoid of potatoes
due to the famine
Life-long hunger and
misery is emphasised
here
The earth is not ‘mother’
but ‘bitch’ now. Cruel
and forgiving (the famine
god?)
III
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in 'forty-five,'
wolfed the blighted root and died.
As the potatoes did
‘you’ why has he used
the second person at
this point?
Does it suggest the
immediacy of the last
two lines- this is now
The new potato, sound as stone,
putrified when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.
Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.
A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.
Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus in filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the
H running sore.
‘filthy mounds’ of
both potatoes but
also of the bodies
piled up. (Remember,
over 1 million people
died during the
famine)
Last two lines return to
the present tense
The knowledge of the
famine is still an open
wound for the people of
Ireland
Through the tiredness of a day’s
work but the image could be
likened to the weak falling of the
famished over a century earlier
Not in the ‘pit’
anymore and no
longer hungry they
can ‘take their fill’
‘flotilla’ maintains the military and
sea-faring images of the first section
but the crows of earlier are
contrasted now with the ‘gulls’
IV
Under a white flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
White bread and tea in bright canfuls
Are served for lunch. Dead-beat, they flop
They take their teabreak. No longer
reliant just on
potatoes for food
they do still make
their living form
digging them
Down in the ditch and take their fill,
Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;
Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill Why has Heaney
chosen the word
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.
They still don’t trust
‘timeless’?
the ground.
Compare the past
and present as
The religious imagery is repeated at the end as the
shown in the poem.
give offerings to appease the ‘famine god’
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mentioned earlier.
Comparisons
• 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.
What other poems and ideas can be used for comparison?
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Themes
• 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.
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Review
1. Once again digging is used symbolically by Heaney.
Explain how.
2. How, in this poem, does Heaney connect past and
present (think about language and images used)?
3. What view does the poem give of man's relationship
with the earth?
4. Does the poet really think of the earth as a “bitch” and
“faithless”?
5. Modern readers in the west may no longer have a
sense of where our food comes from. How does this
poem challenge us not to take things for granted?
6. How does this poem explore ideas of religion, ritual and
ceremony?
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