English 220 #3 Post The Voice of Digging and Beowulf

Digging is one of Heaney’s first poems published in his first major compilation of poems Death of a Naturalist.

Compared to… let’s say Donne’s poems, Heaney’s Digging lacks the metaphors that so characterize Donne’s Elegie: to a mistress going to bed.  Digging uses very direct word choice, as opposed to Elegie’s highly complex metaphorical conceits.  Heaney is weighty, almost plodding as opposed to Donne’s persuasive charm, his lewd lilting voice.

Yet, for some reason, Digging although perhaps not as persuasive, not as immersive as Elegie speaks to me better.

Perhaps this is why I decided to choose to examine Digging when asked to expand my close reading of Beowulf and look at the translator’s other works.  The poem, is semi-autobiographical and concerns the cultural reconciliation through language.  Starting with Heaney sitting behind or at a window, the poem shifts to describe the the poet’s forefathers.  Each cut of turf, each scoop of dirt, the poet’s grandfather and father dig potatoes and cut turf, activities heavily associated with Ireland’s history.  These are simple, peasant activities, without Donne’s sexiness, or Behn’s rich imagery, but they have such weight.  The voice of Digging makes these simple actions appear as the most concrete things in the world.

Imagine my surprise when I found the same sound in Beowulf.  The same epic scale, weight directness is spoken in Heaney translation of Beowulf.  He writes that he did this to preserve the words “sounds of sense”  and because he wanted the poem to be able to be spoken by his forefathers, in their Scullion voice.  Why though? I can understand why Heaney chose to portray Digging in his father’s voice, he is talking about his forefathers after all and what better way to reconcile the fact he will follow their footsteps with a pen, then to preserve their voice in his pen?  Why recompose this Anglo-Saxon epic in an Irish voice?

I say, in my essay, that Beowulf and Digging both share the same theme of cultural reconciliation through language.  The use of the Scullion voice was part of Heaney’s efforts to reconcile himself, to connect his heritage with the epic’s heritage.

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