The Forge

The poem’s first line provides the collection’s title.

Heaney himself is the first person narrator. The blacksmith he has in mind  is Barney Devlin who presided over the smithy on the Hillhead Road above Mossbawn farmstead. The poem will portray Barney anonymously both as an inadvertent contributor to young Heaney’s creative development and coincidentally as an iconic representative of a disappearing rural trade.

Heaney pointed out in A Sofa in the Forties from Spirit Level, that in common with all children his development started from scratch. In his case his precocious intelligence and curiosity were ever eager to find out what lay on the other side of doors ‘into the dark’.

The poet sums up that early stage (All I know) as a callow youngster keen to venture into the unknown (a door into the dark).

On his way to school the youngster saw smithy products displayed against its wall (old axles and iron hoops rusting). Once permitted entry he heard the music of the trade (the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring), perceived eruptive showers of light (unpredictable fantail of sparks), picked up the sibilance of hot metal immersed in water (hiss when a new shoe toughens).

He sifts his memory (must be) as regards the smithy’s centrepiece (anvil) – strategically positioned (somewhere in the centre) – with its mystical conical projection for bending and shaping red-hot metal (horned as a unicorn) and flat surface on which to beat it with a hammer (one end square). Such was the embedded monolith (set there immovable) that consumed the blacksmith’s physical energy (expends himself) – a metaphor for his devotion to the trade (altar) and source of creative artistry (shape and music).

Devlin himself might be spotted (sometimes) … in his working gear (leather-aproned) … not much interested in his personal appearance (hairs in his nose) … taking a breather in the doorway (leans out on the jamb) … reflecting on a pre-1940s’ ‘then’ (clatter of hoofs) that brought him business and, with a headshake perhaps, the post 1950 ‘now’ (traffic flashing in rows) that brought him little work.

Devlin’s way of relieving any resentful feelings this triggered (grunts slam and flick) was to take it out on the metal (beat real iron out) or pump the airbag that turned the coals white-hot (work the bellows).

  • axle: spindle rod passing through the centre of a wheel or a pair of wheels
  • hoop: circular band of metal or wood;
  • quenching: process that helps the smith to control a metal’s brittleness and strength;
  • anvil: heavy iron block upon which metal is hammered and shaped
  • pitch: reference both to the distance a sound carries and its musical tone;
  • fantail: reference to the shape and spread of an open fan
  • spark: small fiery particle triggered by the collision of two hard surfaces;
  • hiss: short onomatopoeic sibilant [s] sound;
  • shoe: horse-shoe;
  • toughen: harden;
  • horned: with a curved, pointed projection used mainly for bending metal;
  • unicorn: mythical horse with a single horn projecting from its forehead;
  • square: the heel of the anvil;
  • altar: table or block used to focus on some religious ritual;
  • expend oneself: consume one’s energy;
  • lean out: project one’s upper body through an opening;
  • jamb: side posts of a doorway;
  • clatter: onomatopoeic word describing the sound of hooves/ hoofs on a hard surface;
  • flash: sudden brief burst of light or colour
  • grunt: make a low guttural sound;
  • slam: shut forcefully and loudly
  • flick: click, snap;
  • beat out: hammer into shape;
  • bellows: device with an inflatable air bag that blows air into the smithy fire;


  • ‘The Forge’ is the first example of what Helen Vendler describes as ‘functional anonymity within longstanding Northern Irish rural practices’ (HV19) replicated in ‘Thatcher’ in this collection and ‘The Seed Cutters’ of the North
  • In a much later conversation with DOD (91) Heaney indicated that as he composed the piece he became aware of something happening within himself: there was definitely a new self-consciousness, at which point I realized that the one simple requirement – definition even – of lyric writing is self-forgetfulness
  • DOD 91 Heaney commented on the Hillhead forge and its associations in his young mind: I was thinking of Barney Devlin’s forge at Hillhead, on the roadside, where you had the noise of myth in the anvil and the noise of the 1940s in the passing cars. As ordinary or archetypal as you cared to make it. Barney’s in his late eighties now (he died peacefully at home at the age of 96 in 2016), but still capable of striking the epic out of the usual. For example, at midnight on the last day of 1999, he hit the anvil twelve times to ring in the millennium – and relayed the tune to his son in Edmonton by cellular phone. He’s still going strong; the last time I was with him, he showed me two different anvils and played them for their two different musics: a sweet and carrying note from the one that had belonged to his grandfather – which is the one I would have heard a mile away when I was a youngster – and an abrupt unmelodious dint from a later industrial ingot, definitely not the one that rang in the year 2000.
  • MP (81) offers a very different if a touch surprising interpretation: like many other poems in his second, it defines the act of creation in sexual terms… Sexual taboos and rites still surround the miner’s calling and the blacksmith’s trade in many parts of the world, and their tools – picks, hammmers, anvils and such – are rendered’ living’ by being sexualized, their functions considered parallel to the human generative act… It was from Barney Devlin’s smithy, one summer vacation, that Heaney borrowed an anvil for a Bellaghy Dramatic Society production about the 1798 rising, for his performance as a blacksmith. Dramatised, mythologised, the forge becomes for the poet simultaneously womb and temple, with its ‘horned’ and sacred anvil ‘somewhere in the centre’
  • NC (13) registers disappointment: There is a rather too self-consciously knowing element about those poems in Door into the Dark which most obviously look backwards? ‘The Forge’, which gives the volume its title, is a sonnet which uses another rural craft, the blacksmith’s, as a further analogy for poetry. For all the precision of evocation in some of its details – that ‘unpredictable fantail of sparks’, for instance – it seems over insistent and voulu. The real occupation tends to disappear behind its metaphorical significance. The ‘forge’ of the title seems, even initially, less an actual forge than ‘the quick forge and working-house of thought’ – the imagination, that is – in Shakespeare’s Henry V;
  • NC (13) further invites us to consider the place of ‘The Forge’ within collection of changes-in-the-making: think of it as a book in which a new, finer and more subtle kind of Heaney poem seems to be embryonically present, but not yet quite born. If Heaney has himself defined one way in which Janus is its appropriate god, I would suggest another: some of its poems, particularly the analogical poems, ‘The Forge’ and ‘Thatcher’, look back to one of the major kinds in Death of a Naturalist, whereas others, and in particular the concluding ‘Bogland’, are the origin, the nurturing ‘wet centre’, of a subsequent manner and procedure in particular, of the major sequence of ‘bog poems’ initiated by The Tollund Man’ in Wintering Out;


  • Heaney continues to ring the changes of form and formatting: a sonnet in 4 sentences [S] (not including colon and semi-colons); variable line length 9-11 syllables; rhyme pattern unconventional compared with classical formats: abba/ c ** c / *e * e/ *e;
  • Simple and continuous present tenses
  • Its volta if it may be termed that comes after S3 at a change from 40s to 60s; attention turns from forge and activity as seen by the child to the blacksmith himself;
  • the balance of punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and  rhythm within the oral delivery potential;
  • S1 stands alone – introducing the ‘dark’ motif that will run through the collection at the start of a journey into light, or knowledge or enlightenment that will contribute to the development of a Nobel Prize-winning poet;
  • S2 contrasts interior/exterior via a semi-colon; visible artefacts (‘rusting’)either suggest Devlin has been at it for a while or he leaves them outside;(‘rusting’); the resonance of smithy work (‘hammering … short-pitched ring’) will re-echo in l.9 (‘shape and music’); firework effect (‘fantail’); onomatopoeic ‘hiss’ of the quenching process suggesting change of metal properties; the preponderance of 1940s’ horses (‘new shoe’) in later use of ‘clatter Of hoofs’;
  • the modal auxiliary of S3 (‘must be’) suggests confirmation received only later in time; comparison ‘horn…unicorn’ comes from a child’s readings used to add a magical, mythical element (what Heaney called ‘the epic in the ordinary’); first of words confirming the Hephaestus- like strength associated with a blacksmith (‘immovable…expends…slam…beat’); hint of blacksmith’s creativity analogous to that of the poet (‘shape and music’);
  • S4 introduces the man as photos have portrayed him, Hephaestus-like, taking a smiling breather outside his forge-temple small enough to make him look huge; change to third person narrative; Heaney moves inside Devlin’s experience; ‘then’ and ‘now’ reflects the change from horse-driven to motorised transport; inner feelings revealed by actions and not words (‘grunts’) … thus his life moves on;
  • Devlin reappears as very much the same individual and temperament in Harrow Pin and Midnight Anvil of District and Circle (2006);


  • 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: fourteen 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;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
  • the use Heaney seeks to make of assonant effects can be judged and measured in the ‘coloured hearing’ that follows

  • 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;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
  • S4 is weave of alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [m] [n], sibilants [s] [z] [sh] and velar plosives [k] [g] with a rich contribution from front -of-mouth aspirate [h], airborne[w], alveolar [l], bi-labial [p] [b[ and labio-dental fricatives [f] [v];


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