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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

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Like the blacksmith hammering object from molten metal, the poet hammers meaning out of words. The blacksmith is a metaphor for all creative artists and craftsmen, including the poet. As the imagined blacksmith enters a "dark" space to "beat" out his creation, so a poet beats a new creation out of the "unpredictable" stuff of words. This process, for both blacksmith and wordsmith, requires tools, such as an anvil and bellows, and takes effort—the smith "expends himself" and "grunts." The artistic endeavor depends on an imaginative appreciation of the past: as the blacksmith "recalls a clatter/of hoofs" so the wordsmith must be able to imagine a past time.

Creative endeavors are spiritual in nature. The anvil is described as an "altar," as if the blacksmith is engaged in a holy task inside a church. Like a church, the blacksmith's shop is "a door into the dark." The "dark" and the "door" also stand as metaphors for entering the spiritual realm, where ordinary, secular assumptions are left behind. Here one sees the sacred, the "unpredictable...sparks," that are both the literal sparks of the anvil and the divine spark of the creative spirit. Here, as in a church, is "music." This is a space apart, in place and in time, a numinous locale where one must imagine a former world in order to create.

Blacksmiths do valuable work. All metaphors aside, one message of the poem is that the blacksmith in and of himself does work that is beautiful—he creates amid the "the unpredictable fantail of sparks." He should not be forgotten in a world of traffic "flashing by." Heaney takes a moment to stop and dwell, to notice what the blacksmith does, before hurrying on. On this level, the poem is not about a poet or religious seer, but simply a description of a craftsman pursuing his trade.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

Poems of notably succinct, imagistic directness about his rural life growing up on the family farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland, formed the core of Heaney’s first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966). To a certain extent, the poems in his second book, Door into the Dark, are in the same vein. “Bogland,” the concluding poem in this volume, indicates how comprehensive a grasp the poet has on the metaphorical resonances of landscape and origins. “The Forge” is an important illustration of the process of achieving full poetic identity, which is what gives Door into the Dark its wider fascination and significance. Here, as elsewhere, the poet does not merely draw on background material but also allows the occasion of doing so to substantiate the activity of doing so.

The smith, then, is more than a figure from the past. He is also an emblem of present transformative energies. The forge is more than a place by which a child was fascinated. The poem actively rehearses the recognition of there being entry to a place of making, and it welcomes the possibility. The smith’s withdrawal into his vaguely Promethean cave and his invisibility within it is counteracted by the poet’s refusal to look away, frustrated by what he cannot see. The poem becomes an extended metaphor for the activity of poetry.

The tendency of “The Forge” to see its material in somewhat larger-than-life terms—as in the “unicorn” simile and in the consequence of perceiving the anvil as “an altar”—clearly enhances the status and potential of what the poet’s memory has unearthed. This process—which converts the incidental and the elementary to new uses—is the smith’s business; it is also a metaphor for what the poet is doing on this particular occasion and for what the process of making poems requires. The commitment to go beyond “All I know,” which is the point from which “The Forge” sets out, is articulated in terms of an admiration of energy and a recognition of the need to work in isolation, away from “where traffic is flashing.”

Heaney’s development into one of the leading Irish poets of his generation has derived from this commitment to a wide-eyed, wondering plumbing of darknesses. “The Forge,” part of whose first line provides the title for the poet’s second book, is a vivid example of that commitment in the making.