The Harrow-Pin


In this first of three ‘workshop’ poems Heaney paints the character portrait of local blacksmith, Barney Devlin of ‘Midnight Anvil’, recalling his uncompromising finger-wagging insistence on high moral standards amongst the rural children who frequented his workshop … and we believed him.

Barney is issuing the ‘old’ warning  that Santa Claus only visits good children – the naughty ones will get only an inedible vegetable (old kale stick) – his short-lived spoken reprimand (admonition) compares with the enduring  solidity of the harrow-pin he is producing, a symbol of ‘real’ chastisement if ever there was one: correction’s veriest unit..

The pin’s qualities are listed: blacksmith-produced, a head-banged spike with the sharpness of a tooth (forged fang); a pin resembling a thousand others produced to the sound of his hammer (a true dead ringer) somehow recalling leaner times (out of a harder time).

The blacksmith hands out a lesson aimed at cutting youngsters down to size (a stake he’d drive through aspiration and pretence) and an educational tool for our instruction.

 The harrow-pin is the universal fixing: at home for decoration whether shelf for knick-knacks or picture-hook or rail …  roughly fashioned (brute-forced, rusted, haphazardly set), reclaimed from agricultural wreckage (harrows wrecked by horse-power over stones) acting as a hook on which to hang horse-tackle (collars… reins … hameswinkers) once sported by humble deceased farm horses of the past: the mighty, simple dead.

 Whether in his workshop, amidst the stench of the animals that came there bedding cut with piss he took nothing for granted (he put all to the test).

 At home with his family he is no one’s fool (ungulled), set in his opinions (irreconcilable), experienced, and astute: horse-sensed as the travelled Gulliver.

 Barney Devlin’s acid test of quality (virtue) is founded on his hammered iron.

  • Christmas stocking: hung up by children on Christmas Eve for Santa Claus to fill with presents;
  • kale stalk: strong stem of a cabbage variety;
  • admonition: reprimand, firm warning;
  • pin: sharp pointed metal used as a fastening;
  • harrow: heavy farm implement dragged over fields to break up the earth;
  • correction: disciplinary punishment
  • veriest: adjectival superlative (most …) from Latin ‘verus’, ’true’;
  • head-banged: formed using heavy weight striking red-hot metal;
  • forge: in the smithy, place where metal was heated to be shaped;
  • fang: large, sharp tooth (e.g. of wolf)
  • dead ringer: a thing resembling its copies; also connation of echoing sound;
  • stake: pointed wooden peg
  • drive: push using force;
  • aspirations: hopes and ambitions;
  • pretence: head-in-the-clouds idea, invention
  • decoration: act of making things more attractive;
  • knick-knack; trifle, trinket;
  • hook: piece of bent metal/ rail a bar attached to the wall from which to suspend items;
  • brute-force: high power, unplanned effort;
  • haphazard: hit-and-miss, unmethodical
  • wreck: destroy, demolish;
  • lodge: set firmly;
  • items used for controlling working horses: a collar around the neck; ticking: heavy cloth sheet to protect the horse against chafing; reins: long leather straps used to guide the horse; hames: part of the collar to which straps could be attached; winkers: eye-patches sewn to the halter to prevent the horse’s eyes from becoming distracted;
  • tackle: general name for this equipment;
  • must: damp, mouldy patches;
  • piss: urine;
  • gull: fool or deceive;
  • irreconcilable: uncompromising, single-viewed;
  • horse-sense: common sense, native wit attributed to horses;
  • Gulliver: eponymous hero of Jonathan Swift’s satirical parody of human nature, Gulliver’s Travels (1726/35);
  • virtue: high (moral) standard, quality;
  • assay: put to the test;
  • 8 tercets; lines varying between 5 and 12 syllables; sentences lengthen as the poem evolves; mid-line punctuation and use of enjambment ensures a variety of options for oral delivery; no rhyme scheme;
  • assonant sounds  tercet (1) combine [əʊ] told/ old/ later harrow with [ei] behave/ kale later stake and [ɒ] nothing/ stocking; (2) injects [ɪ] pin/ / veriest unit providing [sh] alliterative effects in a cluster of nouns: admonition/ correction’s/ aspiration/ instruction; [æ] harrow/ banged/ fang blends with [e] of meant/ correction/ veriest/ head/ dead and alliterative [f] forged fang and palatal nasal [ŋ] banged/ fang/ ringer;
  • stanza 3 echoes assonant [e] in pretence and in later tercets: let there/ any/ decoration/ shelf/ retort; rusted/ set /wrecked ;       
  • note also an [ɔː] chain following the –ion nouns: talk/ decoration/ for/ or/ retort/ -forced/ horse alongside a cluster of [st] consonants  rusted/ stone/ stable;
  • (6) blends assonant  [ai] lined/ eye/ mighty with [e] sweat/ cobwebbed/ dead [ei] veined/ reins/ hames and [ɪ] ticking/ winkers/ simple; [l] sounds collars lined/ tackle/ simple;
  • Heaney continues to ring the assonant changes in (7) using [ʌ] musts/ cut/ put/ ungulled; [ɪ] resounds: piss/ Inside, in/ irreconcilable; the [e] of bedding/ test/ irreconcilable carries into (8) –sensed alongside [ʌ] Gulliver  and the new [u]/ [uː] virtue/ approved.  


  • 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 sentence is rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] and nasals [m] [n] plus approximant [l], alongside sibilant variants [s] [z], and front-of-mouth sounds [w] [v] [h];
  • 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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