blacksmith hammering metal

The Forge

Introduction

The blacksmith’s trade was once an essential part of life, but the “old axles” and “rusting hops” outside the forge suggest the profession has become irrelevant in the modern world of “flashing traffic”. Standing at the “door”, the speaker imagines the incredible “sparks”, “hiss” and “music” of the blacksmith when he works his “real iron”.

Seamus Heaney’s “The Forge” is a celebration of this traditional craft and an analogy for the creative force of the poet in his own “dark” workshop. In the same way the blacksmith has to “work the bellows”, Heaney has to find his own voice by tempering language.

The Sounds of the Forge

Unable to enter this “dark” world, the speaker listens to the intense noise coming from “inside” the forge. He hears the “short-pitched ring” of the hammer shaping the metal against the “anvil” with an “unpredictable fantail of sparks” spreading out from each hit. When the blacksmith dips the horseshoe into the quench tank, there is the sudden “hiss” of metal toughening and cooling in the water. At the end of the poem, the blacksmith, with a “slam” of his hammer, continues to “beat real iron out” and keeps the fires burning with the “bellows”.

Heaney’s use of onomatopoeia in these examples is simple but effective. Notice how the /ŋ/ in “ring” is also an end-rhyme of the previous line “rusting” so there is an appropriate echo to match the resonance of the “hammered” anvil. When the hot metal is plunged into the cold water, the poet reinforces the long, sharp “hiss” with the sibilance in “shoe” and “toughens” but then adds to the rich complexity of the sound through both the consonance of /n/ in the line and the internal rhyme of the vowels in “new” and “shoe”. Finally, the rhythm of “with a slam and flick” helps convey the violent force of the hammer which is quickly followed by the blacksmith turning the metal with his other hand so it is ready to strike again.

The sounds coming from “inside” the forge must have seemed incredible and magical to the young Heaney who, on his way to school each day, passed by the half-opened door of Barney Devlin’s forge.

The Anvil

Remaining outside, the speaker believes the “anvil must be somewhere in the centre”. This heavy block is at the “centre” of a blacksmith’s trade because its flat surfaces and sharp edges are used to forge metal into shape.

The reference to the “square” end reveals the geometric precision of his work and the tapered end of an anvil, commonly known as the horn, is used for hammering pieces, such as a horseshoe, into curves. The simile linking this side to the rare and magical “unicorn” suggests the anvil is also fantastic, elevating the blacksmith’s world into the wondrous realm of fairy tales.

Heaney then compares the anvil to an “altar” where religious rites are performed. In the same way a priest will consecrate the bread and wine for communion, this metaphor suggests the blacksmith’s “shape and music” is also part of a sacrament, transforming the metal into something divine. It is clear the young speaker is completely awestruck by the blacksmith’s supernatural powers.

Finally, it is important to note that anvils need to be fastened or chained to the ground to make sure they remain in position and do not slip against the force of the blacksmith’s hammer. Heaney mentions how it is “set there immoveable”. This firmness could signify the blacksmith is also anchored to the forge.

Recalling the Past

Sadly, the need for the blacksmith’s craft and skill has all but vanished. In the second line, Heaney mentions how the “axles” and “iron hoops” were “rusting” outside the forge. These parts would have been vital for horse-drawn carts. Unable to sell them, they become “old” and useless.

Interestingly, Heaney uses the traditional spelling of the plural “hoofs” at a time when hooves was becoming more prevalent. It might suggest the blacksmith and the poet are both stuck in the past.

Taking a break from his work, the blacksmith stands at the door and “recalls a clatter / Of hoofs”. The onomatopoeic “clatter” is an obvious word choice to describe the clack of the horses’ hooves against the cobblestone street. However, Heaney also recreates the rattling rhythm of their gait through the very tight control of the sounds at the end of line eleven: the stress falls on the plosive /k/ in “recalls” and “clatter”; the unstressed /ɹ/ is the opening and closing sound; the repetition of /l/ in both words; and the use of short vowels. Even the enjambment helps convey the movement of the horses. It is worth repeating this phrase to make sense of the poet’s great skill.

Put simply, Heaney draws attention to the blacksmith’s vivid memory of the old “traffic”, but the “clatter” of “hoofs” has now been replaced by the less lyrical cars “flashing in rows”. Since he does not comment on the scene outside, except for his rough “grunts”, the reader is left to speculate on his feelings. The blacksmith does not move beyond the threshold of the forge to engage with this new world and, therefore, decides to remain in the past and “beat real iron out”.

Poetry

Although the poem describes the blacksmith and his work, the opening line focuses on the speaker and his view of the “door into the dark”. Therefore, everything that follows is framed from his perspective. Significantly, Heaney used the phrase “door into the dark” for the title of his second collection of poetry which was published in 1969. In this way, he subtly links the work of the poet to the marvellous craftsmanship of the blacksmith. This leads to an interesting reading of “The Forge” in terms of the creative writing process.

Despite having some ideas or intentions, the alliterative “door into the dark” could symbolise the threshold the poet crosses when he begins scribbling on a page without knowing for certain what lies beyond those first few words. The “rusting” scrap metal outside the forge can give clues to what happens inside the forge, but the writer must enter the “dark” imaginative world themselves.

Heaney once commented he had “a superstitious fear of setting up a too well-designed writing place and then finding that the writing had absconded” so he preferred a simple desk which he called “a slab of board on two filing cabinets”. He wanted to concentrate on writing rather than being a writer. Therefore, the forge is simply where the blacksmith plies his trade.

The metaphor comparing the “unpredictable” splash of “sparks” to a pigeon’s “fantail” could be interpreted as a writer’s terrific burst of inspiration and flight of fancy. Blacksmiths improve the strength of their work by rapidly cooling the metal. Heaney refers to this quenching process when the shoe “toughens in water”. Similar to tempering metal, poetry needs to be redrafted and revised into its final composition.

The way the blacksmith “expends himself in shape and music” is an obvious analogy for the structure and rhythm of poetry. Also his determination “to beat real iron out” with his hammer could represent Heaney’s desire to forge poetry with his pen. The two infinitives in the last line do convey a real sense of purpose and resolve.

Perhaps, Heaney is revealing his own intense and demanding writing process. The poem opens with the colloquial “all I know is”, which could suggest he is completely and inescapably drawn towards the “dark” world of the imagination.

It is worth reading other poems from this collection, such as “Thatcher”, which also connect rural trades to poetry. John Montague’s “Forge” is another important poem to consider because he makes a more explicit connection between the blacksmith and the poet, inspiring Seamus Heaney to write about his own experiences outside the forge when he was a young lad on his way to school.

Somehow, any one forge is all the forges. But yes, I was thinking of Barney Devlin’s forge at Hillhead, on the roadside, where you had the noise of myth in the anvil and the noise of the 1940s in the passing cars. As ordinary or archetypal as you cared to make it.

Seamus Heaney (2009)

Structure

The sonnet form is perfect for this celebration of tradition. The first four lines seem to be a typical quatrain with an enclosed abba rhyme scheme. However, “dark” and “sparks” are not full rhymes and the fourth line runs on to the fifth to complete the sentence. The next four lines is another enclosed quatrain of cddc. Once again, the poet uses enjambment between the eighth and ninth lines so there is closure at the end of the traditional octet.

The reader might expect the enclosed rhyme scheme to continue but the next four lines are effg. The rhyming couplet remains, but the fourth line when he “recalls a clatter” does not rhyme at all. The blacksmith may have imagined the fires in his forge continuing to burn, but the need for his work begins to fade and the rhyme scheme breaks down. Perhaps he recognises the modern world has moved on without him.

Defiantly, the rhyme continues with “flick” in line thirteen finally echoing the much earlier “music” in line ten and then quicker pace of “rows” and “bellows” to conclude the poem. In this way, Heaney suggests the blacksmith is unwilling to change. This is made clear in the volta beginning with “sometimes”. The blacksmith only “leans out on the jamb” and refuses to step beyond his door into the streets. He will never remove his leather apron.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What are the connotations and resonances of the word ‘dark’?
  2. What do doorways function as symbols of?
  3. How is the opening line self-effacing?
  4. How does the speaker create a sense of decay in the second line?
  5. What does the word ‘hammered’ suggest about the level of effort needed to work in a forge?
  6. How do lines three to five create a sense of energy and life?
  7. Therefore, what contrast is created between ‘outside’ and ‘inside’?
  8. Does the ‘fantail of sparks’, the ‘short-pitched ring’ and the water ‘hiss’ suggest ‘unpredictable’ inspiration and joy?
  9. The poem then focuses on the ‘immovable’ anvil. Why does the speaker imagine that it ‘must be somewhere in the centre’?
  10. How does the anvil take on a mystical and fantastical quality in line seven?
  11. The anvil is compared to an ‘altar’. Is this an appropriate metaphor?
  12. If that metaphor is extended, what might ‘shape and music’ be for a priest?
  13. From this analogy, do you think Heaney is suggesting that a poet needs faith?
  14. What impression is created of the blacksmith in the final five lines?
  15. How might the blacksmith feel when he ‘recalls a clatter / Of hoofs’ but only sees modern ‘traffic’ instead?
  16. Is the blacksmith real or a symbol of the past?
  17. What is your opinion of the poem’s ending?

Learn More

Thanks for reading!