Seamus Heaney and His Fascination with Irish Traditions

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Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Forge” from his second collection of poetry Door into the Dark, is a carefully crafted sonnet representative of Heaney’s own fascination with the art of creativity while also paying homage to and celebrating the traditional rural craft of a blacksmith. This essay will examine the ways in which Heaney uses his poetic craft in order to portray his admiration for and immortalise the work of the blacksmith, paying close attention to his use of form, rhythm, diction, imagery and tone, and how these can inform ones reading and interpretation of the poem.

Heaney’s fascination with the forge is clear from the offset, giving us an outsider view to the building in lines 1 and 2 “All I know is a door into the dark. /Outside, the old axles and iron hoops rusting;”. The image presented of the forge here is one of darkness and decay with heavy assonance in both lines slowing down the pace of the poem allowing the reader to take in the scene and mirror the slow process of the “iron hoops rusting;”. The assonance thus helps create an archaic, almost lifeless image of the forge from an outside perspective, perhaps representative of the societal view of the blacksmith at the time of publishing the poem in 1969, as the role of the blacksmith was left behind in the dark, so to speak, during post-industrial society, with critic Andrew Murphy noting “The horse having been superseded by the car, the smith is, in this context, a representative of a dying trade” (21). These opening lines are then cleverly juxtaposed with lines 3 and 4 as Heaney brings us inside the forge where the blacksmiths work comes to life “Inside, the hammered anvil’s short pitched ring, /The unpredictable fantail of sparks”. This juxtaposition completely contrasts the inside from outside as the blacksmith and his craft are very much seemingly alive. Heaney picks up the pace in these lines with slender vowel words like “inside” and compound words “short-pitched”, adding to the sense of momentum and movement carried by the blacksmith as he hammers a piece of iron into shape. This decision to convey the forge as lively and energetic is evident of Heaney paying homage to the craft of the blacksmith and celebrating rural Irish traditions at a time where they have seemed to have been forgotten.

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Heaney maintains the steady rhythm through use of enjambment in lines 4 to 5 “The unpredictable fantail of sparks /or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water”. The steady transition through the lines mimics the flowing grace of the blacksmith creating and moulding, portraying Heaney as someone who is in awe of the blacksmith and his finely tuned craft. Heaney gives the reader a sensory experience here too, appealing to the senses through the spectacle of the “fantail of sparks” and the onomatopoeic “hiss” of hot iron hitting the water. The synaesthesia on display creates a feeling of marvel within the reader, and the speaker, as it is clear Heaney is engrossed with the blacksmith carrying out his work and demonstrates his appreciation of the traditional rural craft by immortalising it through his poetry.

During the octave where Heaney primarily focuses on the forge itself, he makes use of a metaphor, describing “The anvil” as “Set there immoveable: an altar” in line 8. This allusion to Christianity presents the blacksmith’s work as holy or ritualistic, further evidence of Heaney placing the craft on a pedestal and showing a mighty admiration for a dying creative trade. This use of metaphor can be Heaney portraying the blacksmith as an almost God-like figure, with critic Henry Hart commenting “The Blacksmith may be one of God’s intermediaries, a priest transubstantiating the materials of common experience into holy artifacts;” (36). This idea of placing the blacksmith’s creative ability on a religious scale sets to immortalise his work, much like Christianity immortalised through the bible, the blacksmith’s craft is immortalised through Heaney’s poetry.

Further commenting on the structure of the sonnet, the volta, as we enter the sestet shifts the attention from the interior of the forge to the blacksmith himself. Heaney uses this opportunity to further present the blacksmith as archaic again, describing him as having “hairs in his nose,” and as someone who “grunts”. This use of onomatopoeia and zoomorphism, particularly in “Then grunts and goes in,” conveys the blacksmith as a caveman like character, forging in his cave and occasionally peeking outside for some air. This description presents a character wholly devoted to his craft while the world around him evolves, where once horses walked the street, now “traffic is flashing in rows” yet the blacksmith still practices his craft, keeping it alive, as does Heaney through his poetry.

In conclusion, having considered these readings of the poem there is still an interpretation I must discuss regarding the poem as a whole, that being that the entire sonnet is a metaphor for Heaney’s own particular craft, poetry. Heaney sees in the blacksmith and the forge much of himself. This “door into the dark”, a venture into the unknown is one he takes with his poetry resulting in endless possibilities for creativity, his hammer? his pen, his anvil? a blank page. This connection between the two craftsmen makes it easy to see how Heaney is able to evoke such adoration for the blacksmith within the lines of the sonnet and is a final poetic device pointing towards Heaney’s celebratory tone and admiration towards Irish rural traditions.

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