I am struck by this opening line from Seamus Heaney’s poem, “The Forge.” The image resonates with something deep within me. A door, a threshold, an entrance to a new place, yet a place without comforting orientation, a door-way which does not lead to the foreseeable but into darkness, the realm of something unknown, full of risk, threat, insecurity and potential revealing moments. I am drawn to this image of the darkened doorway even as I feel ambivalent toward it. It evokes the lure of something primal, something truthful emerging in the dark places of my life, a collision of mystery and meaning. It suggests the possibility of something important to gain or lose, of walking into an unsafe and unsure place, which may be costly, and yet, also somehow worth the step. Here is the poem in full:
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 square,
Set there immovable: 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 a flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.
The door into the dark leads to the workshop of the “forge” or “smithy” (or blacksmith, more popularly), one of the oldest processes for shaping metal. Some think Heaney is using this extended reflection on the forge to evoke something of the writer’s creative craft, perhaps even his own. For me, this poem suggests something about the search for creative authenticity in each person, perhaps even my own.
“Outside,” where the history of what has been made and done and lived lies on the ground in the form of “old axles and iron hoops rusting,” forms of things which have outlived their usefulness are scattered around. They once served life well, but now take up extra room and await the destiny of metal scraps—to be lost forever or broken down and re-formed for a new purpose. “Inside,” one hears the “short-pitched ring” of hammer on anvil as the forge pounds out new shapes. It is hard work, breaking down hardened edges “to beat real iron out,” working with powerful forces of heat and compression, setting new forms in place “when a new shoe toughens in water.” It would be easy to get burned, and the “unpredictable fantail of sparks” is a fiery reminder that consequences from this effort are not easily foreseen.
In an important way, one must own this “inside” work, not worried foremost about the perceptions of others. The forge, “leather-aproned, hairs in nose,” has a kind of toughness for the necessary work and a rough disdain for the games of refined expectation and societal posture. He takes a break at one point, “leans out on the jamb” to notice the larger society “where traffic is flashing in rows,” then “grunts and goes in” where he continues the important work of his life.
Not seen from the outside, the anvil resides in the dark and “must be somewhere in the centre.” It is both central and “immovable” in the creative work that takes place. There is a firm face to the anvil on which the forge depends in order to get through hard work. Here, at the very creative center, the anvil is “at one end square,” with logical right angles and the reasoning of geometry. Yet the other side is “horned as a unicorn,” evoking that mythical beast of history which points to magic, inner purity, and the sacred. The anvil, by it very shape, brings together logic and magic, reason and the sacred. It is “an altar,” a place of creative encounter and change, where the forge “expends himself in shape and music.” Here is the transformative space at the heart of authentic creation. To get there, one must enter a “door into the dark.”