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.
Heaney reveals he was not actually present in the smithy 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 via the cellular phone held in a pose appropriate for a smithy high as a horse’s ear!
Heaney recalls a line of medieval poetry that adds a spiritual’, otherworldly element to the sound: Church bels beyond the starres.
Had he been there he has no Barney would have requested a poem. Heaney prefers a tribute to metal-workers throughout time, to those waterburning medieval smiths with onomatopoeic smithy sounds associated with the bellows (‘Huf! Puf!’) or the sibilant sound of immersed hot metal (‘Lus, bus!), even a diminutive Nicholas (Col!) – above all the impressive clangour that was produced: Such noise/ On nights heard no one never.
In the final lines, quoted from Poet to Blacksmith, he returns to the ultimate proof of metal-worked perfection – pure, uncracked sound – ringing sweet as a bell.
- Devlin’s forge was at Hillhead, not far from the Heaney farm;
- metaphysical poet George Herbert refers to Church-bells beyond the stars heard in Prayer 1; Heaney seems to have found an earlier version in medieval English and italicised it; his later quotation is borrowed from his own version of a poem that features in Poet to Blacksmith;
- waterburning: elusive – the idea of steam and spitting generated by immersing red hot metal in water lends itself to a trade that has endured from medieval times to the present day still crucial wherever horses are in use
- smith: general name for metal workers;
- Huf, puf etc: elusive nouns possibly mimicking smithy sounds;
- 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;