The Forge by Seamus Heaney

The Forge’ by Seamus Heaney is a fourteen-line untraditional sonnet that in part conforms to the features one normally associates with sonnets. For example, the first lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABBA CDDC. This pattern in the first octet of the poem has aspects of both the Shakespearean rhyme scheme (ABABCDCD) and the Petrarchan (ABBAABBA). But, any semblance of a pattern dissolves in what should be the sestet, or final six lines, of the poem. These lines contain some half or slant rhymes but come close to the pattern DFCFAF. A reader can compare that pattern to those commonly used in Petrarchan sonnets (CDCDCD or CDECDE, etc.) and those in Shakespearean (EFEFGG). 

Heaney also makes use of a number of poetic techniques. These include alliteration, simile and enjambment. The latter is an important technique that is commonly used in poetry. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.  This forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines eight and nine. There, a reader has to jump forward in order to find out more about the metaphor comparing the anvil to the altar. 

A simile, or comparison using like or as, appears in the seventh line when the speaker compares the pointed side of the anvil to a unicorn horn. Last, alliteration happens when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together and begin with the same letter. For instance, the use of “Outside” and “old” in the second line. 

You can read the full poem here.


Summary of The Forge

‘The Forge’ by Seamus Heaney uses poetic language to describe the workings of a blacksmith’s forge and the man who runs it. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing what is inside and outside the blacksmith’s shop. Outside one can see discarded metal-work. On the inside, things are much more lively. There are “unpredictable” sparks flying in the air and the ringing sound of the anvil filling the space. 

In a prominent place at the centre of the room, there is the anvil where the blacksmith does his work. It appears to the speaker like an altar. In the last lines, the speaker describes how the blacksmith sometimes goes to his door and observes his metal creations in action.


Analysis of The Forge

Lines 1-4

In the first lines of ‘The Forge,’ the speaker begins by stating that “a door into the dark” is all he knows. This is a haunting and eye-catching first line that’s meant to draw a reader in. In this case, the door is the entryway to a blacksmith’s forge. As the poem progresses the “dark” is not quite as menacing as it seemed at first. In fact, the world on the other side of the door is somewhat magical. 

The next two lines present a contrast between the “Outside” and the “Inside”. The speaker is very aware of both, something that allows him to draw an accurate and vibrant comparison. If one is outside the door, they’re going to see “old axles and iron hoops rusting”. These bits of metal that were once forged with a specific purpose have now been discarded. They stand as totems to past work but also as markers. They signify the nature of the labour on the other side of the door. 

Once the reader is taken inside, the senses become more important. It’s not so important what one can see, but what one can experience. There is the sound of the “anvil’s short-pitched ring” as well as the “fantail of sparks” that trails out with each blow. 


Lines 5-8 

In the next lines of ‘The Forge,’ the speaker describes other elements of the blacksmith’s shop. These also appeal to one’s senses, helping the reader get a full, clear, and somewhat bodily, picture of what’s going on. In addition to the ringing of the anvil and the sight of the sparks flying, one can hear and see the “hiss when a shoe toughens in water”. In this line, the speaker is referring to the process of cooling a piece of hot metal in a water bath. This is done in order to set the metal and make it much less malleable. In this case, the piece of metal is a horseshoe. 

Continuing on, the speaker gives a few more details about the shop. If one is inside, they’re going to see the anvil. It is “somewhere in the centre”. The speaker describes it as “Horned as a unicorn” on one end, and “square” on the other. It is one of the most important elements of the shop and holds a position appropriate to its stature. The anvil is situated as “an altar”. It is “immoveable”. 

By connecting the anvil to an altar the speaker is expanding his, and the reader’s, understanding of what the blacksmith’s shop and forge represent. The action the blacksmith engages in is in some way, at least to the speaker, spiritual. It involves rituals, routines and careful preparations. Additionally, the creations that come out of a blacksmith’s shop are integral to everyday life. This speaker sees the blacksmith as a very important part of the community. 


Lines 9-12

It is not until line nine that the speaker brings the blacksmith himself into the narrative. Up until this pint he has been talking around the man at the center of the job. The labour, the blacksmith’s implements and actions have been the focus of the poem. Now, the poem turns to the man and how he fits into the forge, and more broadly, the speaker’s memories. 

Heaney breaks the traditional separation between sestet and octet by not placing the turn between lines eight and nine. Line nine picks right up from line eight and begins to speak on how the blacksmith interacts with his shop. “He”, the speaker states, “expends himself in shape and music”. 

The turn in ‘The Forge’ comes in line ten. The speaker describes the blacksmith as pausing in his work and moving to lean against the door “jamb”. This only happens occasionally, but when it does, the blacksmith is able to see and hear his creations in the wider world. He can “recall…a clatter / Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows”. His works have moved beyond his shop and out into his community where they now perform essential functions for the public. 


Lines 13-14  

After taking his break at the doorway, he “grunts and goes in”. He doesn’t have anything transcendent or moving to say about his process, finished work, or the impact it has. Instead, he goes back to “work the bellows”. From these lines, and the poem in its entirety, it is clear the speaker admires the blacksmith and the labour-intensive job he engages in. 

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  • Avatar Stuart says:

    The typo is quite funny

  • Avatar Pieter Smagge says:

    Oops! I was wrong about the date: the poem was published in 1966, nog in 1960. Still, Heaney may have known a blacksmith who preferred to shut out the modern age.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Don’t we all 😉

  • Avatar Pieter Smagge says:

    This is a wonderful poem, and Heaney really makes you feel the incomplete perception of the dark interior of the forge: we notice hammering, sparks, and hissing, but the place of the anvil must be guessed at. I don’t interpret the twist at the end the way you do. The blacksmith “recalls a clatter / Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows”. I think Heaney is juxtaposing the past (horses as a means of transport) and the present (cars on the motorway). Heaney wrote this poem in 1960 at the latest, and I’m guessing that he may have known one or two blacksmiths still working at the time, and remembering the days of the horse-and-cart.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      This is a wonderful interpretation of the final line and seems to fit beautifully.

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