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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Twice in the poem the speaker references the sounds produced by the physical labors of his forebears. Importantly, however, he doesn’t just reference the sounds—he recreates them. He does so by using a poetic device known as onomatopoeia (AW-nuh-MAW-tuh-PEE-yuh), which refers to instances where the sound a word makes suggests that word’s meaning. The first instance of onomatopoeia appears in the second stanza, where the speaker’s eye moves from his desk to the window, out of which he can see his father digging in the garden below. Crucially, what causes the speaker’s attention to shift isn’t the sight of his father digging but the sound (lines 3–5):
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging.
Here, the use of the word “rasping” has an onomatopoeic quality that mimics the harsh, grating sound of a spade digging into rocky soil. Later in the poem, the speaker shifts to a memory of his grandfather cutting peat. Here again he uses onomatopoeia, this time to conjure the distinctive sound made by “the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat” (lines 25-26). In both examples, the speaker uses his gifts as a poet to honor his forebears by evoking the unique sounds associated with their labors.
The word “digging” appears several times throughout the poem. Significantly, the word appears at key moments of transition in the poem, which gives each instance the quality of punctuation. For example, consider how the word functions in the second and third stanzas (lines 3–9):
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The word first appears near the end of the second stanza, where the speaker looks through his office window and sees his father digging in the garden below. In the lines that follow, the speaker transitions almost imperceptibly to another moment twenty years in the past, when he watched his father stooped over a potato field, once again “digging.” Each instance of the word comes at the end of a sentence, hence functioning almost literally as punctuation. But the word also punctuates each moment in a more figurative way, emphasizing the ongoing nature of this form of labor throughout the life of the speaker’s father. And not just his father, but also his grandfather:
He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
These lines (20-24) describe another memory, this time of the speaker’s grandfather cutting peat. Here, the use of “digging” as punctuation is even more pronounced. Not only does it come at the end of the stanza, but it appears as its own sentence.