Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Seamus Heaney’s "The Forge"

Perhaps the thing I love the most about “The Forge” is the way it drags us back into the earliest reaches of civilization. The blacksmith, after all, was one of the most important members of an agricultural community–he kept horses shod, he kept plows sharp after having cast them in the first place, he was able to transmute iron and other metals into the tools humans needed to build civilization.

Heaney’s blacksmith evokes Vulcan, the Roman God of the forge. He doesn’t speak–he only grunts, and is described as “leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,” but he is powerful as well, able “to beat real iron out.” Even the “door into the dark” in the first line recalls the caves of Etna in which Vulcan was to have beaten out Achilles’ shield, as well as the move back into the darkest, murkiest parts of human development.

It’s also wonderful the way Heaney compares the blacksmith’s shop to a church. The anvil sits in the center, “immoveable: an altar / Where he expends himself in shape and music.” In the church, the altar is where the transformation from sinner to forgiven takes place, whether in the accepting of the host or in the answer to the altar call. Just as the blacksmith transforms raw material into a useful tool, so the church symbolically transforms the raw material of humankind into the useful tool for the church. Even the fact that the altar is “Horned as a unicorn” could be a reference to the medieval church–the King James version talks about unicorns in Job 39.

And yet, this is all pretty subtle in the poem. It’s not overtly religious; it allows the reader to stick to a literal interpretation about a man whose job is disappearing as the world changes around him, while also allowing a reader who wants to grasp those deeper images another path into the poem.

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March 27, 2008 - Posted by | "The Forge", Seamus Heaney

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