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Critical Analysis of The Forge by Seamus Heaney

‘The Forge' is a sonnet with a clear division into an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the final six lines). While the octave, apart from its initial reference to the narrator, focuses solely on the inanimate objects and occurrences inside and outside the forge, the sestet describes the blacksmith himself, and what he does.

Interestingly, the transition from the octave to the sestet is a run-on or enjambment containing one of the key metaphors of the poem, the anvil as altar:

Set there immovable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
One effect of this is to enable us to experience the anvil or altar as a magical point of transition between the material and immovable world of objects and the fluid, musical world of human consciousness.

The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is: abba cddc efgfef, a departure from the standard Shakespearean (abab cdcd efef gg) or Petrarchan (abba abba cde cde) sonnet form. The unrhymed 11th line He leans out on the jam, recalls a clatter is perhaps the most striking feature of the rhyme scheme, and, combined with the poem's second run-on, serves to emphasise the cacophony and disorder of the remembered horse-drawn carriages. The threefold full rhyme nose/rows/bellows gives a pleasing finality to the end of the poem, especially in contrast to other lines which tend more to half-rhyme (square/altar, dark/sparks).

The metre of the poem is the standard iambic pentameter, but it is used flexibly, to good effect. For example in the very first line the first two feet begin with a long syllable (thus trochaic or dactylic rather than iambic), which has the effect of emphasising the important phrase All I know which frames the poem by suggesting the limits of the narrator's perspective and knowledge (the narrator seems to be outside the forge: he sees the objects outside, and hears the sounds inside, but cannot see the anvil, and only sees the blacksmith when he leans out on the jamb). In the second line, the rhythm is highly irregular, perhaps suggesting the irregularity of the collection of old axles and iron hoops, and at the same time their solidity by the use of multiple long syllables. There are various other departures from the strict iambic pentameter which simply emphasise particular key words: for example, Horned in line 7, Set in line 8, leather-aproned and hairs in line 10, out in line 11 and in in line 13. In line 4 and line 12 Heaney uses two pairs of short syllables to emphasise the vivacity and movement of the unpredictable fantail of sparks and the road where the traffic is flashing in rows.

Another feature is the combination of repeated long syllables with assonance, as in new shoe (line 5) and beat real iron out line 14; in both cases the regularity of the rhythm and uniformity of the sound could be said to highlight the harmonious form of the blacksmith's products. A further metrical feature can be seen in the transition from the octave to the sestet. The final line of the octave is the shortest of the poem, with only nine syllables, thus both emphasising the final word altar, and creating a certain rhythmical tension which is relieved in the first line of the sestet, which is a highly regular and fluent iambic pentameter.

The imagery of the poem consists mainly of the very down to earth contents of a forge: axles and hoops, the anvil, bellows and the blacksmith himself. There are only two metaphors (one of which is combined with a simile) in the poem, and both concern the central (both in the centre of the forge, and described in the central sixth to eighth lines of the poem) object, the anvil. It is said to be horned as a unicorn, the comparison with a mythical beast serving to emphasise its mysterious nature, which has already been suggested by the fact that the narrator seems uncertain as to its precise whereabouts (The anvil must be somewhere in the centre), and perhaps implying further that it has a certain bestial life of its own. In the following line, the anvil is said to be an altar. This seems to imply that the blacksmith's activity must correspondingly be a form of worship.

These metaphors, and the description of the blacksmith as expend[ing] himself in shape and music (line 9) appear to unnecessarily idealise the blacksmith's art. This suggests that all the imagery of the forge is intended to be symbolic of the creative process of writing poetry, with the blacksmith representing the poet. The fact that the narrator seems to see the forge from the outside perhaps symbolises the fact that the poet's attempt to express the poetic process cannot be based on direct vision, but must be an indirect act, as if the act of reflection destroys what is being reflected on. The dark interior of the forge as a whole symbolises the obscure depths of the poet's experience, while the new shoe which toughens in water symbolises the way in which the poet's words are the solid crystallisation of those depths.

Likewise, the anvil, being at the centre of the forge, perhaps represents the mythical (it is compared to a unicorn) core of the poet's experience. When struck by the hammer (perhaps symbolising a quick flash of insight), the anvil emits a sound (a short-pitched ring) and an unpredictable fantail of sparks, which again may symbolise the unpredictable yet beautiful, spoken or written words of the poem. We may thus make sense of the metaphor of the anvil as altar, as comparing the poet's devotion to the creation of a poem to religious worship or prayer. The exterior of the forge may symbolise the mundane, unpoetic world of modern life (the trafficflashing in rows), which the blacksmith/poet seems to scorn in favour of the remembered past (recalls a clatter of hoofs) and the supposedly more real activity of beating iron, i.e. poetic activity.