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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145

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"The Forge" can be analyzed through its poetic craft elements. It is an unusual sonnet, in that it doesn't adhere to its rules. It starts with a sonnet rhyme scheme. Once this is established, however, it doesn't stick to the octet and sestet guidelines. Additionally, the poem is narrated from a first person point of view, with the narrator referring to childhood memories of passing by a local blacksmith's forge. The recollections are illustrated in passionate detail so that the reader has a strong impression of immediacy and intimacy. The poet’s strong visual imagination captures the reader’s eye like the 'smith’s handling of their tools of trade' places the reader in direct sensory relation with the subject matter. In addition, the poet doesn't make direct assumptions or conclusions; he lets the reader do his own interpretations of events while reading the poem.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

From a strictly formal point of view, “The Forge” is a sonnet. As is typical of Seamus Heaney’s work, however, and reflective of this poem’s unobtrusive depths, it is more interesting for the ways in which it departs from conventional sonnet forms than for its attachment to them. Thus, “The Forge” opens with a representative sonnet rhyme scheme. Once this is established, however, it is not adhered to. Similarly, the familiar internal organization of a sonnet into octet (the first eight lines) and sestet (the concluding six lines) seems promised but is not maintained.

“The Forge” presents the poet as an observer of a familiar childhood scene (the village “smithy” has a long history as a poetic subject). The poem is written in the first person, and there is little doubt that Heaney draws on material familiar to him and to which he has remained imaginatively attached. The elements of the scene are described in loving detail, so that the reader has a strong impression of immediacy and intimacy. The poet’s strong visual imagination—whereby evidence of the everyday catches the reader’s eye like the smith’s “unpredictable fantail of sparks”—places the reader in direct sensory relation with the subject matter.

The poet remains an unobtrusive facilitator throughout. His presence enables the reader to see, rather than enjoining the reader to read. This approach suggests that experiencing is as significant as reaching conclusions, a suggestion that may be considered an example of the poet’s debt to William Wordsworth. (Heaney has acknowledged this debt on a number of occasions and has edited a selection of Wordsworth’s poetry.) Such a poetic objective—to return the reader by means of imaginative engagement to elements of nature, entities beyond, and prior to, the page (water, iron, air)—is in keeping with the poem’s essential simplicity.

Although the poem is entitled “The Forge,” it is clear that its ambition is as much to depict the man who carries out the work as it is to show the nature of the forge’s dark interior and materials. The labor and what it takes come before the carefully integrated description of the smith. There is a sense in which the other images of the poem are subsidiary to that of the smith, whom the reader would expect to be the dominant presence in the poem. It is striking, however, how the poem avails itself of this normal expectation quietly to draw attention to the human image that is beyond the public point of entry and labors at the core of darkness. The gradual, self-effacing buildup to this recognition creates a number of resonances, which go well beyond the poem’s apparently simple occasion and make “The Forge” a more subtle piece of work than its deceptively simple surface might lead the reader to believe.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

“The Forge” is a typical Heaney poem in a number of respects. It exemplifies the poet’s striking use of what he has called (borrowing a T. S. Eliot phrase) “the auditory imagination.” At one level, the sense of sound works in a familiar poetic, as, for example, in the internal rhyme of “know” and “door” and the juxtaposition of “door” and “dark” in the poem’s opening line. Such sonar relationships give the poem a pleasing degree of sensory interplay that engages the reader’s imagination, as slowly reading “The Forge” aloud will reveal. Additionally, it is noticeable how “short-pitched,” used to describe the sound of hammer on anvil, evokes in its taut sibilance the chink of metal on metal, as well as more distantly suggesting the smith’s muscular stroke. Those two associations facilitate and reinforce the mention of “shape and music” in later lines—“shape” being the immediacy of the thing made and “music” an abstract consequence of the making.

Though verbally rich, “The Forge” does not rely on facile verbal fireworks. The smith “grunts and goes in” back to work, and work has its unglamorous mundanity, as the colloquialisms “slam and flick” state. Generally speaking, the poem’s combination of restraint and attachment provides the reader with an attractive experience of the domestic and the vaguely exotic—“door” and “dark,” “outside” and “inside.” The one occasion in which an image is elaborated into simile—the sharp end of the anvil seen as “horned as a unicorn”—is arguably the weakest component of the poem, though it cannot be rejected totally since it potently underscores the poem’s thematic substance.

The metaphor of the anvil as “altar/ Where he expends himself in shape and music” draws attention to the presence in “The Forge” of another typical feature of Heaney’s verse. The perhaps unexpected connotations of smith as expressive celebrant reveal a sacramental undercurrent to the overall depiction; they are particularly striking in view of being in such sharp contrast to the “old axles and iron hoops rusting” encountered in the poem’s second line. Such a view supports the perception of the smith as a somewhat distant and mysterious dweller in darkness. This perception is substantiated by the poem’s opening declaration of a limited awareness of the smith (“All I know . . .”) and, at the end of the poem, by the smith turning his back on the social scene beyond the forge to tend to his solitary exertions. The poet’s adoption of a limited perception makes more of the smith by seeming to have little to convey about him. “All” is the word that signals from the outset the poem’s perspective of enabling restraint.

The opening statement of “The Forge” can be read as one made in the present tense. It seems more in keeping with the poem’s subtle resources, however, to consider the verb “to be” in the historic present. By that means, the poem’s activity, glossed in the smith’s work (“To beat real iron out”), is a deliberate act of imaginative reconstitution that also acts as a hint to the reader to iron out the full imaginative potential of this illusorily simple poem.