Poet to Blacksmith

The search for perfection: Heaney offers a version from 18th century Irish of ‘instructions’ given by an agricultural labourer to his ‘spade-maker’ in the confidence that the latter can engineer the bespoke tool he requires: a side-arm to take on the earth.

The spade must meet he following criteria: fit-for-purpose (Suitable for digging and grubbing), pleasing to the eye and right for the hand; for work and rest (pleasant to lean on) aesthetically pleasing (Tastily finished) of perfect design for manual work (right for the hand); with flawless, ‘superior’ 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 would bring a pledge: to work with the gang till I drop and never complain.


There is to be 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 is to be properly fitted to the shaft. The final measure of perfection will only be testable when as with the best bone china the tool is struck: And best thing of all, the ring of it, sweet as a bell.

The metaphor fits the process of writing perfectly. In a collection which offers insights into writing poetry and poetic aspiration, Heaney suggests that perfection is possible and that the criteria can be set out. Of course, to achieve perfection the poet will be required to act as his own blacksmith!

  • 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;
  • gang: farm-labourers often work in groups; dead in the sense of ‘absolutely’; purchase as a ‘measure of flexibility’; spring occurs when a flexed item returns to its original shape; socket: the point where two parts are joined e.g. eye-socket, hip, here wooden shaft and metal blade;
  • to take on the earth: ‘meet the challenge of ground to be dug’ and used figuratively ‘become the best at it, a world beater’;


  • 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): [uːsuitable tool; [ʌ] grubbing/ cut; [ai] side-/ Lightsome/ right; [ɪdigging/ 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 [ɪthing/ 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;