Poet to Blacksmith

In search of perfection – Heaney offers his version of an 18th century Irish list of ‘instructions’ given by an agricultural labourer to his ‘spade-maker’ in the confidence that the latter can engineer the bespoke tool he requires to become a champion at what he does: a side-arm to take on the earth.

The spade must meet the following criteria: fit-for-purpose (suitable for digging and grubbing), comfortable in his grip (right for the hand); when taking a break (pleasant to lean on); aesthetically pleasing (tastily finished); of flawless appearance (no trace of the hammer); with the necessary elastic qualities of purchase and spring that save it from snapping; perfectly engineered where wood meets metal: The shaft to be socketed in dead true and dead straight.

 To possess the perfect tool is worthy of a pledge: work with the gang till I drop and never complain.

 The business end to possess no imperfection (wrinkly or crooked) in the blade especially its leading edge that must be well shaped from the anvil and sharp from the file; only the best quality wood to be properly fitted to the shaft, grain and line in harmony (nicely fitted).

The final measure of almost spiritual perfection will only emerge when the blade hits the soil: best thing of all, the ring of it, sweet as a bell.

 The metaphor fits the process of writing neatly. Heaney’s work constantly offers insights into writing poetry and poetic aspiration – perfection is possible and that the criteria can be set out. Of course the poet is required to act as his own blacksmith!

  • take on the earth: meet the challenge of digging rough ground and used figuratively ‘become the best at it,  a ‘world beater’;
  • side-arm: literally a weapon at a person’s side e.g. sword
  • grub: dig up earth;
  • -some: added to adjectives to indicate somewhat, tending towards;
  • lightsome: lightish, on the light side
  • trace: sign;
  • sheen: shine, polish, gleam;
  • purchase: a measure of flexibility;
  • spring: what occurs when a flexed item returns to its original shape;
  • strain: pressure.bending;
  • socket: point where two parts are joined e.g. human hip and pelvis; here wooden shaft and metal blade;
  • dead: in the sense of ‘absolutely’
  • gang: farm-labourers often work in groups
  • spade parts are listed: blade (the section  of the metal plate that enters the earth); shaft (the wooden stem and handle of the tool); also the spade-makers tools: hammer;  metal anvil upon which heated metal is beaten; file, the tool that smooths rough edges on metal;
  • The phrase “side arm” and the fact that the request is from a poet to a blacksmith surely reveals this as a deliberate companion piece to and revisiting of the imagery of “Digging” where Heaney’s pen rests “snug as a gun” between his finger and his thumb and where he vows to use the pen as his spade: “I’ll dig with it”. This poem reverses, as it were, the metaphorical polarities so a pen-user requests a spade. It’s a reversion to something primal, in keeping with which, he’s caught the accentual/ alliterative metre of the original Irish beautifully, whereas the earlier poem is in iambic tetrameter. Andrew Grant
  • 3 quatrains; lines of 12 syllables or more; loose but detectable rhyme scheme; predictable punctuation reflects the enumeration of requirements;
  • assonant [ei] will echo through the piece Séamus / make/ take/ tastily/ trace/ blade/ strain/ straight/ complain/ plate/ shaped/ grain;
  • further assonant effects in (1): [uː] suitable tool; [ʌ] grubbing/ cut; [ai] side-/ Lightsome/ right; [ɪ] digging/ lift/ Tastily finished/ trim; consonant sounds: alveolar plosive [t] and sibilant [s];
  • in (2) further sibilant [s] and [ʃ] voiceless post-alveolar fricative (sh) show/ sheen/ purchase/ shaft (then in 3) shaped/ sharp/ shaft  alongside [ɪ] thing/ spring/ fit and [e] dead/ dead/ never/ (then in 3) edge/ well/ best;
  • in (3) return to [ai] I/  file/ line/ nicely, [ʌ] crooked/ wood, [ɪ] of wrinkly/ anvil/ fitted, and in the final line arranging [e] bell/ well [ɪ] with palatal nasal consonants [ŋ] thing/ ring around the most important adjective sweet;
  • 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: thirteen 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 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;

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