In the third stanza, Heaney is prompted by the familiar sight of his father’s backside to regress into his memories. The undignified image of his father’s “straining rump” reveals how Heaney feels about his father in the present; what seems to be a mixture of distaste and embarrassment. He then slips back into a time “twenty years away”, a time when he was presumably quite young.
The use of language here – employing the word “away” instead of a more typical word such as “ago” – makes the reader feel as though Heaney is very distanced from his past, and has perhaps tried to put it behind him. He grew up on his family’s farm, winning a scholarship to St. Columb’s College when he was 12. Heaney later described his move from the farm to the school as moving from “the earth of farm labour to the heaven of education,” which implies that farm labour, despite any expectations his family might have of him, was not something which he excelled at. This no doubt made him feel insubstantial and insecure, which explains why his childhood would be something he would wish to forget.
Heaney moves on to set the scene – his father is digging again, but instead of in flowerbeds, he is now digging potato drills. The memory continues into the fourth stanza, in which words and phrases such as “lug”, “shaft” and “rooted out tall tops” emphasise that he is slipping back more completely into the memory, and using his father’s terminology as he no doubt did when he was young. Moreover, an admiring tone seeps into his language, which is a stark contrast to the disdain of previous stanzas. We can see that whilst Heaney feels differently about his father in the present, he once admired him as every small boy admires his father.
There follows two lines which show this admiration well: “By God, the old man could handle a spade, Just like his old man.” Heaney then moves back even further into his memory, reminiscing about his grandfather. The stanza has a very matter-of-fact, mundane tone, but through it, his admiration for his grandfather can be seen. In the first two lines, his pride can be discerned clearly when he describes how superior his grandfather was at cutting turf. His portrayal of his memory of taking milk to his betrays his feelings of inadequacy in comparison to the surpassing skill of his forefathers. He depicts himself as sloppy (the milk he carried was “corked sloppily”), while he uses words such as “neatly” to describe the actions of his grandfather, emphasising how he envies their efficiency and precision.
In the third stanza of The Thought Fox, Hughes introduces us to the fox, which, as the title implies, acts as a metaphor for his idea. In the first line, Hughes makes a second oxymoronic statement – “dark snow”. This adds to the air of mystery around the fox, and the sense that we are ??? a strange, surreal universe rather than the real, ordinary world of Digging. The fox’s movements; the way it’s “nose touches twig, leaf”, and the image of its eyes moving, suggests caution, as though the idea is approaching the poet as slowly and warily as a fox would. The third, fourth and fifth stanzas are composed of enjambed lines which emphasise the fox’s fluid movements.
In the fourth stanza, Hughes talks about the fox’s “neat prints”. We can see a similarity here between this poem and Digging, because “neatly” is an adverb used to describe the actions of Heaney’s grandfather, whom he admires greatly. Similarly, in the fifth stanza, Hughes describes the fox’s eye using words such as “brilliantly” and “concentratedly”, implying that he is in awe of the fox as Heaney is in awe of his grandfather. An element of awe seems to be a necessary ingredient for the inspiration of both poets.
The final stanza of Thought Fox, and the final two stanzas of Digging, bring an end to the poems. Both poets are brought ‘back to reality’ with physical sensations. Heaney remembers smells and sounds vividly, using sensuous language such as “the cold smell of potato mold” and “the squelch and slap”. The onomatopoeic quality of the words “squelch” and “slap” adds to the immersion of the audience into Heaney’s past.
He returns to the present with the statement “I’ve no spade to follow men like that”, words which seems to betray his insecurities about being unequal to the family tradition. However, in the final stanza, he repeats what he said in the first stanza about his pen being in his hand, but instead of saying “as snug as a gun”, he replaces it with “I’ll dig with it”. This shows that whilst he is bad at manual labour, which he feels ashamed for, he considers writing poetry to be his form of manual labour, a job that he works hard at, gets paid for, and can be proud of. The absence of the simile is significant because it implies that he has accepted the value of writing poetry and no longer needs to glamorise his pen – in the final stanza it is simply a pen.
Hughes is brought out of his subconscious by the “sudden sharp hot stink of fox” which occurs when the idea suddenly comes to him. Like in Digging, this language is also very sensuous, but much more abrupt than the more nostalgic descriptions of the poet’s childhood. He ends the poem with the words “The page is printed”, showing that he has successfully taken the thought and used it.
Something obvious to anyone who reads these poems is that they are written in very different ways. The Thought Fox feels very magical and strange, whilst Digging is mundane and ordinary. This seems to reflect how the poets feel about the process of writing a poem. On the one hand, Hughes sees it as a gift, something given to him by some deity on a higher plane, whilst on the other hand, Heaney sees as something to be striven for – a conscious effort, not dissimilar to manual labour. In my opinion, neither poem is better than the other; they are both very pleasing to read. Whilst I enjoyed reading The Thought Fox more, and felt that it is more engrossing and almost exotic, I concur with the views on writing poetry which are set out in Digging; that ideas have to be found, not simply waited for.