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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The speaker associates both his father and grandfather with a short, shovel-like tool known as a spade. When he describes a recollection of his father digging in a potato field, the speaker is careful to note how the man manipulated the tool with his body: “The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft / Against the inside knee was levered firmly” (lines 10-11). Later, in an awed tone of respect for his father, the speaker declares: “By God, the old man could handle a spade. / Just like his old man” (lines 15-16). With these lines, the speaker transitions to a memory of his grandfather cutting peat at “Toner’s bog” (line 18). Although the speaker doesn’t mention it specifically, peat-cutters use a specialized tool known as a “tairsgeir,” also known as a “peat spade.” Through its association with the speaker’s father and grandfather, the spade takes on a symbolic significance that references a male tradition of physical labor on the land. More specifically, the spade symbolizes a family tradition, one that the speaker feels unable—or unwilling—to take up for himself, despite the respect he has for his forebears.
Whereas his father and grandfather both wielded the spade, the speaker has a tool of his own: the pen. The speaker opens the poem at his writing desk, where he considers the implement he holds in his hand (lines 1–2):
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Initially, the speaker associates the pen with a gun. This reference to the pen as a weapon is traditional, as suggested by the idiomatic expression, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” If the pen is a weapon, it’s because it has the capacity to change hearts and minds through the words it commits to the page. In this sense, then, the speaker opens the poem with a conventionally symbolic understanding of the pen. As the poem progresses, however, the pen takes on a different significance. The speaker recalls his father and his grandfather, both of whom worked on the land. Although the speaker respects his forebears, he knows he isn’t a physical laborer. Even so, he realizes he can situate himself within his family lineage by reimagining the pen as a metaphorical digging tool, one that allows him to excavate his own thoughts and memories. Hence, he concludes the poem with a revised version of the opening stanza (lines 29-31):
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.