Analysis of “The Forge” by Seamus Heaney

The Forge, situated on the Hillhead Road, near Castledawson and dates from the 19th Century. (www.georgemcintyre.tripod.com)

The Forge, situated on the Hillhead Road, near Castledawson and dates from the 19th Century. (www.georgemcintyre.tripod.com)

The Forge
by Seamus Heaney

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

“The Forge” appears in Seamus Heaney’s second volume of poetry, Door into the Dark (1969), and the title of the collection is taken from the first line of this poem.  Like many other poems by Heaney this poem explores and glorifies country crafts, many of which are now redundant.  This, in time, may pose problems for those younger generations who come to explore the poems of Heaney and other great poets: few of our young people have reason to visit the forge today, fewer still know what a diviner did and in these ecological times turf is no longer our default fuel! However, not too long ago, the forge was an essential part of Irish rural life and farmers, in particular, used the services of the blacksmith to shoe their horses and make and repair their ploughs and iron gates and other farm utensils.  Indeed in harsher, more troubled times the forge also doubled as an ‘armaments factory’ where ancient pikes, and rudimentary spears and swords were forged and tempered in a clandestine way and often ‘hidden in the thatch’!

Many of his earlier poems evoke, “a hard, mainly rural life with rare exactness,” according to critic Michael Wood[1]. These early poems use descriptions of rural labourers digging, turf-cutting, divining for water, purging unwanted farm animals, and their many and varied other tasks and contemplations of natural phenomena — and they are filtered through childhood and adulthood.

‘The Forge’ was owned and worked by local blacksmith Barney Devlin and it had been handed down to him by his father before him.  Heaney used to pass by this mysterious cornucopia of scrap metal, farm machinery and the obligatory three or four strong farm horses on his way to school at Hillhead near Bellaghy, in rural County Derry.  Heaney’s boyhood fascination with the mysterious goings on at the local forge is compounded by the eerie darkness of its interior.  Later when he began to write, he uses the forge and the work of the blacksmith as an extended analogy or metaphor for his own artistic development and creations – as he does also in “Digging” and other poems.

‘The Forge’ is a sonnet with a clear division into an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the final six lines). While the octave, apart from its initial reference to the narrator, focuses solely on the inanimate objects and occurrences inside and outside the forge, the sestet describes the blacksmith himself, and what he does. Interestingly, the transition from the octave to the sestet is a run-on or enjambment containing one of the key metaphors of the poem, the anvil as altar:

Set there immovable: an altar

Where he expends himself in shape and music.

The poem can be read as elegy to the past, and a lament to the lost tradition of the blacksmith. The anvil is constructed as an altar, and the blacksmith is beating out “real iron”, which the world in 1969, was beginning to dispense with, as cars and tractors began to whizz by ‘flashing in rows’ to the few and far between main dealers!

In one of the many other ways of reading this poem, the blacksmith figure can also be compared to the creative role of the poet as one who opens “door[s] into the dark”, “expends himself in shape and music”, and who “grunts” with the exertion of forging his poems.  Heaney drags us back into the earliest reaches of civilization.  The blacksmith, after all, was one of the most important members of the  agricultural community – he kept horses shod, he kept ploughshares sharp after having cast them in the first place; he was able to transmute iron and other metals into the tools humans needed to build civilization.

Heaney’s  blacksmith evokes Vulcan, the Roman God of the forge. He doesn’t speak – he only “grunts”, and is described as “leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,” like a caricature from Chaucer.  He is powerful as well, able “to beat real iron out.” It’s also wonderful the way Heaney compares the blacksmith’s forge to a church.  The anvil sits in the centre, “immoveable: an altar / Where he expends himself in shape and music.”  And yet, this is all pretty subtle in the poem. It’s not overtly religious; it allows the reader to stick to a literal interpretation about a man whose job is disappearing as the world changes around him, while also allowing a reader who wants to grasp those deeper images another path into the poem.

We have focussed much on the forge and the blacksmith so far but it is essential that we also concentrate on the wordsmith and his craftsmanship at work here also.   One effect of this is to enable us to experience the anvil or altar as a magical point of transition between the material and immovable world of objects and the fluid, musical world of human consciousness. We have already mentioned that this is a sonnet, but even here the poet is experimenting and the rhyme scheme of the sonnet is: abba cddc efgfef, which is a departure from the standard Shakespearean (abab cdcd efef gg) or Petrarchan (abba abba cde cde).

Heaney uses the extended analogy of the forge as a centre of creativity and he posits the thesis that the blacksmith’s work is synonymous with the creative work of the poet. He uses the beautiful simile “horned as a unicorn” to compare the anvil at the centre to the mythical ancient unicorn.   He also cleverly introduces the metaphor of the anvil as altar, comparing the poet’s devotion to the creation of a poem to religious worship or prayer. The poet uses juxtaposition to contrast the exterior of the forge, which may symbolise the mundane, unpoetic world of modern life (“the traffic is flashing in rows”), which the blacksmith/poet seems to scorn in favour of the remembered past (“recalls a clatter of hoofs”) and the supposedly more real activity of beating “real iron out” inside the forge, i.e. poetic activity. There is also the sharp contrast made between the old and the new – the “clatter of hoofs” and “traffic .. flashing in rows”.   The poem abounds with examples of alliteration and assonance, “a door into the dark”, “outside, old axles”.  Another grace note used by the poet is the combination of repeated long syllables with assonance, as in “new shoe” and “beat real iron out”.  The noisy, boisterous forge is brought to life also by numerous examples of onomatopoeia: “hiss”, “clatter”, “grunt”, “slam”, “flick”.  In truth, whether one is a wordsmith or a blacksmith, a playwright or a wheelwright, one has to stand amazed at the sensual delights conjured up by phrases like, “the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring”, or “the unpredictable fantail of sparks”.

For me the satisfaction of reading Seamus Heaney’s work is the way in which he leads you from the local, from the parish of Anahorish, from his homestead in Mossbawn, or later Glanmore, outwards in space and time, proving Kavanagh’s theory that the local is universal.  In Ireland, our greatest poets are poets of place and they depict the people who live in those places ‘warts and all’, and despite some criticism that Heaney labours the analogy here in this poem, I agree wholeheartedly with P.R. King [2] when he states:

The precise and unadorned diction of the poem represents as honest a piece of craftsmanship as the subject he describes … (The Forge) is accurate, it comes alive as it records the last moments of a dying craft, and after it has been read it lingers in the mind.

Barney Devlin (95) with a prized painting of himself and Seamus Heaney. His father is the blacksmith referred to by Heaney in The Forge.

Barney Devlin (95), the inspiration for this poem, in his home with a prized painting of himself and the poet,  Seamus Heaney. (www.breakingnews.com)

[1] Michael Wood, in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974

[2] King, Peter R., Nine Contemporary Poets: A Critical Introduction, London: Methuen, 1979. (Selections from the work of Philip Larkin, Charles Tomlinson, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Dunn, Tom Paulin, and Paul Mills).

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