© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), “Digging” (1966)

Born on his family’s farm in Northern Ireland, Seamus Heaney went on to study at Queen’s College in Belfast, where he discovered the poetry of Ted Hughes and was inspired to begin writing his own poetry. By 1966, with the publication of the volume Death of a Naturalist, Heaney became recognized as a major new poetic voice. The poem “Digging” was published in this volume. Heaney would go on to gain widespread recognition as one of the greatest poets of his generation, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. Though Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, Heaney (a Catholic and an Irish Nationalist) preferred to be considered an Irish poet, rather than a British one, and once famously refused to have his work included in an anthology of British poetry, explaining his position with a snappy bit of poetry:

Be advised my passport’s green,

No glass of ours was ever raised

To toast the Queen.

Heaney also declined an offer to become the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, but he was not radically anti-British by Irish standards. He served for a time as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, for example, and he was generally a voice for peace amid the Troubles that wracked Ireland, even if his nationalist sympathies were clear. He sometimes seemed reluctant to write political poetry, though, and some of his best remembered work—such as his much-admired translation of Beowulf (2000)—is not openly political but instead addresses general issues. For example, his well-known poem “Blackberry-Picking” (also included in Death of a Naturalist) metaphorically captures the broad experience of growing older and discovering that the world, in reality, is not the way we once thought it was. It celebrates the exuberance and optimism of childhood, then contrasts that with the disappointments of adulthood as the sweet dreams of youth turn sour.

“Digging” is also a well-known poem that is political only in a subtle and general way. Here, Heaney, the son and grandson of Northern Irish farmers, expresses his respect for and sense of solidarity with his working-class roots. He recalls the work of his father and grandfather digging the soil and then suggests that writing poetry is his own form of digging, comparing his work with a pen to the spadework of his forebears. Writing poetry, the poem implies, is no more important or elevated than the humble work done by his father and grandfather. At the same time, the poem proclaims, writing poetry is still an honorable form of labor, one of which he clearly hopes his working-class ancestors would be proud to see him do.


Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

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 coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   

Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. 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.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

Philip Larkin (1922–1985): “High Windows” (1967)

Written in 1967, the year of the “Summer of Love,” which some have seen as the peak of the 1960s counterculture and of the 1960 sexual revolution, “High Windows” is Larkin’s response to that time. The poem begins as the speaker (one can imagine that he might be a college librarian like Larkin, observing young students in the college library) sees a young college and imagines that they are probably freely having sex, thanks partly to the availability of effective methods of birth control that had not been available to his own generation when they were young. He imagines that everyone his age must envy the freedom enjoyed by this generation, but then wonders if older people looked back on the youth of his own generation and envied them their new freedom, in particular the way in which that generation largely broke free of the bonds of religion. But then he turns, in the last stanza, to a thought of “high windows” that suggest the windows of a church, thus posing the question of whether complete freedom can ever be achieved and whether limitations on behavior will always remain.

In addition to the way its content addresses the context of the 1960s, “High Windows” is a formally interesting poem It is written in quatrains with abab rhyme schemes, perhaps the most conventional of all verse forms. Yet the sentences (as they did in “Mr Bleaney,” which we read earlier) span the quatrains, somewhat disrupting the formal order, while many of the rhymes are slant rhymes. It is as if the poem is struggling to break free of the bonds of formal convention, but cannot quite do so, so that the form of the poem directly echoes its content.

High Windows

When I see a couple of kids

And guess he’s fucking her and she’s   

Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,   

I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—   

Bonds and gestures pushed to one side

Like an outdated combine harvester,

And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if   

Anyone looked at me, forty years back,   

And thought, That’ll be the life;

No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide   

What you think of the priest. He

And his lot will all go down the long slide   

Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:   

The sun-comprehending glass,

And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows

Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

John Lennon (1940–1980): “Imagine” (1971)

Born in Liverpool in 1940, John Lennon joined a fledgling rock band known as “The Beatles” in 1960. After several extended gigs playing in Germany, the Beatles settled on their final four-man lineup of Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in 1962, releasing their first single, “Love Me Do,” in October of that year. Over the next eight years, the Beatles would become the most successful rock band in history, leading the so-called British Invasion and becoming a hugely influential force in the history of rock music. Lennon, the oldest of the Beatles, was very much their leader; he and McCartney co-wrote most of the band’s songs, becoming the most successful song-writing duo in rock music history.

After the Beatles decided to break up, recording their last album, Abbey Road, in 1969, Lennon launched his own highly successful solo career. One of his first and most successful solo hits was “Imagine,” a song to which Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono contributed many of the lyrics. “Imagine” is a utopian ballad that urges listeners to try to envision a perfect world of peace and love that has moved beyond materialism, nationalism, and religion, in which people can live in genuine harmony, creating a world of genuine community, where everyone is free to pursue their own potential without having unnecessary and artificial restrictions place on them. It might seem a rather idealized vision, but it is very much in tune with the values of the 1960s counterculture, for whom Lennon and the Beatles had served as culture heroes. Indeed, the world envisioned by Lennon in this song is essentially the same as the one envisioned in the original Star Trek television series (which originally ran from 1966 to 1969), except that, in the series, this perfect world is achieved via science and technology, while Lennon’s vision is more philosophical.

In 2005, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation named “Imagine” the greatest song of the past 100 years. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine named “Imagine” the third greatest song of all time, topped only by Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”), both of which also expressed the values of the 1960s counterculture. While many over the years have been upset by Lennon’s belief that a perfect world would be one without religion, the song has remained popular and has been performed or recorded by over 200 different artists. The serene sound of the song is no doubt a key to its success, but then sound has always been an important part of poetry and this song clearly deserves to be regarded as a poem and as an expression of what the countercultural movements of the 1960s had hoped to achieve. A YouTube video featuring Lennon’s performance of this song is embedded here:


Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky

Imagine all the people
Livin’ for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one