Alliteration (uh-LIT-er-AY-shun) refers to the repetition of the same letter or sound at the beginning of nearby words. Heaney uses this technique throughout “Digging.” For an example, consider these lines (12-14) from the fourth stanza:

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep 

To scatter new potatoes that we picked, 

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

All three lines feature at least one instance of alliteration, and the first line contains two. Alliteration functions on multiple levels in this and other passages from the poem. On one level, it has a sonic function, enriching the language and giving it a self-consciously “poetic” sound. On another level, alliteration enhances the sense of connections between individual words. The phrase “hardness in our hands,” for instance, emphasizes the tactile feeling of the hard potatoes. On yet another level, Heaney’s use of alliteration has a historical function that links his poem to the tradition of alliterative verse that characterized much English poetry prior to the eighteenth century. Old English poems like Beowulf, which Heaney would go on to translate later in his career, are heavily alliterative, as are Middle English poems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Heaney tacitly acknowledges these older verse traditions through his use of alliteration.

Extended Metaphor

An ordinary metaphor asserts a comparison between two things without using words such as “like” or “as” to make the association. An extended metaphor functions in the same way, but it differs in the amount of space devoted to its development. Whereas an ordinary metaphor may be mentioned in passing, an extended metaphor unfolds over the course of many lines. In the case of “Digging,” Heaney develops an extended metaphor that likens the poet’s pen to different tools for digging, such as the farmer’s spade and the peat-cutter’s blade. This extended metaphor isn’t established right away. Indeed, the poem opens not with a metaphor but with a simile (SIH-muh-lee). The speaker begins by making a more traditional comparison that explicitly associates the pen with a weapon: “snug as a gun” (line 2). After this point, however, the poet abandons the association provided by the simile and develops a more idiosyncratic notion of the pen as a digging implement. This notion, which derives from the speaker’s family history, only becomes fully clear in the poem’s concluding lines (29-31):

Between my finger and my thumb 

The squat pen rests. 

I’ll dig with it.

These lines revise the opening simile, transforming it into a more suitable metaphor.


Onomatopoeia (AW-nuh-MAW-tuh-PEE-yuh) refers to instances where the sound a word makes suggests that word’s meaning. When you say onomatopoeic words like “clap,” “zip,” and “fizz” out loud, they seem to mimic the very sounds they name. Heaney uses onomatopoeic words like these throughout “Digging,” and particularly near the end of the poem, when the speaker describes memories involving his grandfather, the peat-cutter. As an example, consider the phrase, “a bottle / Corked sloppily with paper” (lines 19-20). The sounds of the words corked and sloppily both subtly convey their meaning. In the case of corked, for instance, the word has an abrupt and abbreviated sound that mimics the action of stuffing a cork into a bottle. Later, the speaker employs onomatopoeic words to describe “the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat” (lines 25-26). Here and elsewhere in the poem, the speaker’s use of onomatopoeia is significant for the way it implicitly justifies his choice to become a poet. Though he honors the physical labors of his forebears, the speaker declares his desire to follow a different path. By using sonic effects to recreate the sounds produced by the actions of his father and grandfather, he demonstrates his gifts for language and his capacity as a poet.