by Seamus Heaney
All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.
The opening line of this poem hails a supernatural and eerie place that beckons further reading of the poem. This line achieves its purpose as a first line to incite curiosity and questions, urging the reader to continue in order to find what answers lie ahead. The word “dark” has many negative and mysterious connotations; the placement of such a powerful word behind a door which promises to be opened attests to Heaney’s ability to subtly evoke resonance.
Not only has Heaney constructed the shape and the visual setting of an anvil, but he has also re-imagined the smells, sounds and tactile impressions of the experience inside a blacksmith’s shop. The shop is the “dark” of the first line; it is also a place that is no longer necessary for modern life: for instance, we no longer depend on horses’ hooves or wrought-iron nails. “Dark,” then, could refer to the unreachable past as well as the blackness of the anvil, the iron, and the soot of the shop.
Heaney chose to use the first person pronoun “I” in the first line, although the central character in the poem is only referred to as “he.” Easily, the reference in the first line could also have been “he,” which would have tied the poem together tightly. However, Heaney has consciously created a second character, an observer to the blacksmith; the reader is fully aware that there is one character here, observing another. The tone of the character, who apparently only knows the “door into the dark,” is sympathetic and attentive to the blacksmith to such an extent that I venture to assume that this character might be a child, perhaps even the blacksmith’s son.
If I read the poem as homage to a father figure we can also see the anvil as a symbol of an unreachable heritage, a tradition that the observer is not able to perpetuate because of the modernization of such aspects in society as transportation. The poem can be read as elegy to the past, and a lament to the lost tradition of the blacksmith. The anvil is constructed as an altar, and the blacksmith is beating out “real iron,” (my emphasis) which the world in 1969, when this poem was written, has no need for.
In one of the many other ways of reading this poem, the blacksmith figure could also be a construction of the role of the poet as one who opens “door[s] into the dark,” “expends himself in shape and music,” and who grunts and flicks words and language, forging his poems.