The Forge

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  • The Forge
    • Heaney’s conception of himself as a poet seems to be re-considered in The Forge where the poet/speaker is again looking into the darkness, not this time the darkness of a well, but the darkness of a workshop.
      • The workshop was a real workshop, well known to the young Heaney and in The Forge he imagines the smith, the skilled master of a traditional craft, as a symbol of the ideal poet, for whom the darkness “rings”.
        •  Even seventy years ago the blacksmith’s trade was old-fashioned and in the poem there is a distance between his traditional craft-work and the “flashing” shiny modern world.
          • Neither the smith of the midtwentieth century nor the universal figure of the ideal poet is entirely at home in his surroundings.
    • As in “Gathering Leaves”, there is a first-person speaker, but while Frost’s speaker maintains his presence in the poem, reflecting on his work, Heaney’s speaker effaces himself after the decisive statement of his knowledge and ignorance in the opening line: “All I know is a door into the dark”
      •  in the darkness the work proceeds, largely unseen but detected by its sound. The poem follows the sonnet form. The stringent demands of this traditional form are themselves emblematic of the application needed for skilled work.
        •  Like most modern poets Heaney varies some of the features of the sonnet, lessening the insistency of the rhymes and providing a one-line introduction.
          •  he retains the two-part structure of the sonnet – the first part about the observer and what he perceives or imagines about the work, the second about the workman.
      • “All I know is a door into the dark”:
        • Heaney began with an image of himself as a small boy looking into the mysterious darkness of a local work-place.
          •  (The blacksmith in question reported that at the time the poem was written, Heaney had never been in the forge.)
            •  The image functions to provide a concept of the poet and his work. It comes from “the dark”, not from occult or forbidden depths , but from the darkness of the personal or collective unconscious, the poetry emerging in a “fantail of sparks” as “shape and music”. 
              • Neither Frost nor Heaney restrict themselves to a mere description of the work that is their theme.
                • Frost sees work as having its own value, or as having a value which may only be disclosed much later; Heaney takes one particular craft, which had fascinated him as a child, and creates a symbol of the ideal practitioner of the craft to which he was dedicating himself.
    • Opposition between outside and inside world
      •  Lines 2 and 3 are balanced by the antithetical adverbs “Outside/inside”. Outside, where the speaker stands is a shabby reality of “old hoops and iron rusting”.
        •  Inside, the fabulous work takes place in the darkness, apprehended only by an “unpredictable fantail of sparks”, or by its sounds, conveyed onomatopoeically:
          • “the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,… Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.”
            • The speaker remains outside and the process of work remains in part a mystery to him, something to be guessed at. The “fantail of sparks” may be an image of sudden achievement – in the smith’s work or in the poet’s – but it emerges from darkness and is unexplained.
              • The description of the anvil, the heart of the workshop and of the work, is spread over four lines. The speaker seems never to have seen it; its location is guessed at, but is believed to be central, and it is immovable, permanent: “The anvil must be somewhere at the centre.” 
    • The final part of the poem contrasts markedly from what has preceded it. After the lofty conception of the work being undertaken, we end with the reality of the alltoo-human agents who effect it – a reality which applies of course to both smith and poet.
      • Though the work may be fabulous, the workman is not. He has “hairs in his nose”, is decidedly unimpressed by what he sees of the modern world, and shows it, perhaps a little grumpily when he “grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick”
        • There is a deliberate change of tone from exalted to realistic, effected by the disappearance of the imagery of legend and religion in favour of a factual detailing of the scene: “… leather aproned, hairs in his nose,/He leans out on the jamb…”. 
          • Having taken his look at the modern world, he disappears back inside to get on with some real work:
            • “To beat real iron out, to work the bellows”.


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