Philosophy of Poetry as Presented in Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”


The philosophy of poetry has always been concerned with the process of creating poems and the ultimate purpose of poets’ labor. Since writing poetry relates to intellectual work rather than physical, the distinction between these two types of labor is at the core of the analysis of the philosophy of poetry. However, the role of poetry for humanity is as important as any other labor since it endures thinking, self-identification, and the analysis of being. In this essay, the definition of poetry and its role as presented in the poem “Digging” by Seamus Heaney is examined and analyzed. The essay is designed to claim that unlike in Csezlaw Milosz’s “Ars Poetica,” the poem “Digging” unfolds the purpose of poetry to change the world and shape people’s lives and not merely reflect values.

Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”

In his poem, Heaney refers to the literal description of the work he observes his father do while writing the text. The comparison of crafting a literature piece with physical labor allows the author to add a more practical meaning to poetry. Indeed, Heaney refers to his father digging by describing his boot “nestled on the lug,” and the “cool hardness” of dug potatoes in his hands (par. 4). Using such metaphors and physically meaningful words, the poet emphasizes the experiential meaning of labor as an essential element of human existence. Since he compares his work in writing poems with his father and grandfather working with soil, the purpose of poetry is in its contribution to human physical existence.

This aspect of the philosophy of poetry exhibited by Heaney might be contrasted to the definition of poetry presented by Milosz. In “Ars Poetica,” Milosz emphasizes the artistic role of poetry as a value-based and theoretical matter. He states that “poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,” which is the inner voice of a poet (Milosz par. 3). In such a manner, Milosz envisions poetry’s purpose in sharing one’s feelings and aspirations through soft language and imaginative, poetic devices. In contrast, Heaney appeals to the presence of poetry in the physical world where a poet reflects and directly influences the environment. This idea is evident in reference to a “pen” as compared to a “gun” in the poet’s hand (Heaney par. 1). In the context of conflict in the poet’s motherland, the role of guns and violence is essential for understanding his perception of poetry. The words in a poem might be used as a weapon to change people’s views and decisions, ultimately shaping history.

Another significant aspect of the resemblance of the physical world in poetry is through the use of rhythm. Indeed, as opposed to Milosz’s poem, where the author seeks for “a more spacious form” that would not be either “poetry or prose,” Heaney adheres to rhythm and rhyme in his work (Milosz par.1). Moreover, he reflects it by directly referring to his father, “Stooping in rhythm through potato drills” (Heaney par. 3). In such a manner, the poet manages to incorporate his philosophy of poetry into the very structure, rhythm, and word choice of his poem, which manifests his understanding of what poetry is.


In summation, the analysis of Heaney’s poem “Digging” demonstrated that the poet sees the role of poetry in its direct connection to the physical world, as well as its capability to shape human experiences. This idea is more evident when viewed in contrast with Milosz’s perception of poetry as a free expression of one’s refined emotions and thoughts, which a deprived of their connection to the physical world. Thus, poetry is a complex and multifaceted artistic phenomenon, which bears meaningfulness and practical value in its simple, concise, and language-focused form.

Works Cited

Heaney, Seamus. “Digging.” Poetry Foundation, Web.

Milosz, Csezlaw. “Ars Poetica.” Poetry Foundation, Web.

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