Heaney is reminded of the last seconds of December 31st, 1999 when local blacksmith, Barney Devlin, already in his eighties, struck twelve hammer-blows on his anvil for the millennium. In an article Heaney described this moment as a ‘strike’ similar to the 9/11 ‘strike’ in that both ‘strikes, the latter a hostile act, the former celebratory, acted as ‘tuning-forks’ for poems’.
What starts as a remembered happening becomes an elegiac tribute to blacksmiths over history.
Heaney reveals he was not actually present in the smithy on that New Year’s Eve yet can celebrate the resonance of the moment (I can still hear it). Modern technology permitted Devlin’s nephew 8000 miles away in Canada to share the happening (the cellular phone held) posed appropriately for a smithy (high as a horse’s ear!).
Heaney dips into a medieval poem that injects a timeless element of solemn celebration (Church bels beyond the starres heard).
Had Heaney been there Barney would surely have requested a poem. The poet prefers a tribute to the metal-workers who preceded Barney Devlin (those waterburning medieval smiths) reworking the onomatopoeic smithy sounds associated with the bellows (‘Huf! Puf!’) or the sibilant sounds of hot metal immersed in water(‘Lus, bus!) or the cries of the smith for more coal (Col!) – all in all celebrating the impressive clangour that was produced (Such noise/ On nights heard no one never).
The final lines, repeated from the collection’s earlier poem Poet to Blacksmith, set out the ultimate proof of metal-worked perfection – pure design achieved (sharp, well shaped from the anvil)– flawless uncracked sound (ringing sweet as a bell).
- tuning forks for poems: reference to ‘Anything Can Happen’ from the same collection
- Devlin’s forge was at Hillhead, uphill from the Heaney farm; young Heaney would pass it on his way to school;
- Heaney is working from a 15th century version in medieval English; his later quotation is borrowed from his own version of a poem that features in Poet to Blacksmith; metaphysical poet George Herbert refers to Church-bells beyond the stars heard in ‘Prayer’ 1;
- waterburning: – the idea of steam and spitting generated by immersing red hot metal in water lends itself to a trade that has endured with broadly the same techniques from medieval times to Heaney’s present day still (still crucial wherever horses were in use);
- smith: general name for metal workers;
- Huf, puf : examples of onomatopoeic smithy sounds;
- I am grateful to fellow commentator Andrew Grant who drew my attention to ‘The Blacksmiths’, an anonymous poem written at some time around the middle of the 15th century and echoing the Old English alliterative/ assonant tradition designed to draw responses of sympathy and laughter from the live audiences to whom this poem would be delivered (and secondly to ‘The Rattle Bag’ anthology (1982) co-edited by Heaney and Ted Hughes which contains a version of the poem):
Swarte smekyd smeþes smatyd with smoke
Dryue me to deth wyth den of here dyntes
Swech noys on nyghtes ne herd men neuer
What knauene cry and clateryng of knockes!
Þe cammede kongons cryen after ‘col, col!’
And blowen here bellewys þat al here brayn brests
“Huf, puf!” seith þat on; ‘haf paf’ þat oþer
Þei spytten and spraulyn and spellyn many spelles
Þei gnawen and gnacchen, þei gronys togydere
And holdyn hem hote wyth her hard hamers
Of a bole-hyde ben her barm-fellys;
Here schankes ben schakeled for the fere flunderys
Heuy hamerys þei han, þat hard ben handled
Stark strokes þei stryken on a stelyd stokke
Lus, bus! las, das! rowton be rowe.
Swech dolful a dreme þe deuyl it todryue!
Þe mayster longith a lityl, and lascheth a lesse,
Twyneth hem tweyn, and towchith a treble,
Tik, tak! hic, hac! tiket, taket! tyk, tak!
Lus, bus! lus, das! swych lyf thei ledyn
Alle cloþmerys: Cryst hem gyue sorwe!
May no man for brenwaterys on nyght han hys rest!
- 25 lines in 5 quintets; lines based around 5 and 7 syllables; no rhyme scheme; each stanza uses enjambment to follow the unfolding story; use also of colons and italicised quotation;
- the chain of vowel sound [ɪ] as in and echoing Devlin occurs from second to final line;
- emblematic midnight anvil ( the one of Devlin’s two anvils, that emitted ‘a melodic sound’);
- a chain of [e] as in and echoing Devlin is also strongly recurrent: there/ twelve/ millennium ;
- unusual double use of unstressed [ə]: Edmonton; [ai] in key words: midnight/ high/ smiling/ write;
- cluster of [ʌ] in (4): ‘Huf! Puf! Lus, bus! / Such and alliterative nasal [n] of instead/ –burning/ noise/ nights / no one never (example of archaic double negative);
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
- the music of the poem: twelve assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
- for example, the final lines are rich in nasals [m] [n] alveolar plosives [t] [d] and front-of-mouth sounds: bi-labial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], continuant [w] alongside approximant [l] and sibilant variants [s] [sh] [z];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;