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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Perhaps the central theme in “Digging” relates to the importance of honoring tradition. In the speaker’s case, it is the family tradition of physical labor that requires honor and respect. This tradition is explicitly male, as the speaker indicates through his focus on his father and grandfather, both of whom worked directly on the land. The speaker feels a need to honor this tradition, even as he himself departs from it, choosing the path of a poet. It is for this reason that he has penned this poem in which he recalls, in evocative detail, the sights and sounds of his forebears’ efforts. An air of respect saturates the speaker’s descriptions, and he makes his awe explicit when he declares, midway through the poem: “By God, the old man could handle a spade. / Just like his old man” (lines 15-16). Although the speaker won’t dig with a spade, he concludes the poem by declaring that he’ll “dig” with his own preferred implement: the pen, which he can use to achieve a symbolic excavation of his own thoughts and memories.
Though working the land is hard, the speaker of “Digging” represents physical labor as having distinct pleasures. One way he communicates the pleasures of labor is through his use of sound. Flexing his gifts as a poet, the speaker uses literary devices such as alliteration and onomatopoeia to enrich his language. These devices yield verse that’s pleasurable for speaker and listener alike:
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging.
In just three lines (3–5), the speaker incorporates several instances of S, SP, G, and GR sounds, all of which help to recreate the “clean rasping sound” of the spade slicing into soil. Despite evoking certain pleasurable aspects of physical labor, the speaker doesn’t downplay the great demands labor makes on the body. He depicts his father as “stooping” over “potato drills” (line 8). Later, he indicates the unrelenting work required for his grandfather to get to the high-quality peat (lines 22-24):
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf.
But with hard work also comes the deep satisfaction of rest, as the speaker suggests when he recalls how, as a child, he brought a bottle of cold milk for his grandfather to drink. The speaker certainly doesn’t idealize labor, but he does recognize its distinctive pleasures.
The speaker belongs to a family where the men traditionally make a livelihood through physical labor. By contrast, the speaker asserts that he will pursue a different livelihood: writing. Crucially, the speaker frames writing as an intellectual form of labor—one that, though clearly different from farming potatoes or cutting peat, nonetheless requires a certain kind of digging. Whereas his forebears used a spade to dig into the physical soil of the earth, the speaker will use his pen to “dig” into the figurative “soil” of his own thoughts and memories. The speaker makes this claim explicitly at the poem’s conclusion. But he also makes it implicitly through his careful control of language and form. For instance, consider the speaker’s intentional use of rhyme, as well as the various literary devices he deploys to enrich his poetic language, including alliteration and onomatopoeia. In this way, the speaker indirectly compares the craft of verse to the effort of working the land. Both, he seems to insist, are forms of labor.