The Harrow-Pin

The first of three ‘workshop’ poems paints the character portrait of a local blacksmith, perhaps even the Barney Devlin of ‘Midnight Anvil’, recalling initially his finger-wagging influence on the rural child-audience that thronged his workshop (and we believed him),

A hard man to please, the blacksmith offers his version of the annual warning that Santa Claus only visits good children. The naughty ones get only an old kale stick, a perishable vegetable; he considers this feeble punishment (an admonition) compared with his symbol of ‘real’ chastisement – the solid, metal harrow-pin, correction’s veriest unit..

The pin’s qualities are listed: it is blacksmith-produced, a Head-banged spike with the sharpness of a tooth: forged fang; a true dead ringer/ Out of a harder time. Heaney is making a dual suggestion: the pin resembles a thousand others; its ringing sound and dead weight when dropped somehow recall leaner times. The punishment, the ‘correction’ that the blacksmith’s nature recommends is clarified: the humble pin would act both as ‘vampire-killer’ and educational tool: a stake he’d drive through aspiration and pretence/ For our instruction.

The harrow-pin is the blacksmith’s universal fixing: at home for decoration/ shelf for knick-knacks/ picture-hook or rail; in workshop, too without the finesse of home fittings: Brute-forced, rusted, haphazardly set, reclaimed from agricultural wreckage, from harrows wrecked by horse-power over stones; acting as a hook for horse-tackle (collars.. reins.. hames  [through which the traces passed] and winkers [blinkers] from humble deceased farm horses of the past: the mighty, simple dead.

His physical and mental strengths are summarised: out in his workshop, with the stench of the animals that came there bedding cut with piss/ He put all to the test. Indoors with his family he is ungulled, irreconcilable, no one’s fool, experienced, set in his opinions and astute: horse-sensed as the travelled Gulliver.

His tried-and-tested quality is as strong as the harrow-pin: his acid test of approval is founded in hammered iron.


  • knick-knacks: assorted ornaments and trinkets around the house; Gulliver: eponymous hero of Jonathan Swift’s satirical parody of human nature, Gulliver’s Travels (1726/35); veriest: adjectival superlative (most …) from Latin ‘verus’, ’true’;
  • 8 tercets; lines varying between 5 and 12 syllables; sentences lengthen as the poem evolves; mid-line punctuation and use of enjambment ensures a variety of options for oral delivery; no rhyme scheme;
  • assonant sounds  tercet (1) combine [əʊ] told/ old/ later harrow with [ei] behave/ kale later stake and [ɒ] nothing/ stocking; (2) injects [ɪ] pin/ / veriest unit providing [sh] alliterative effects in a cluster of nouns: admonition/ correction’s/ aspiration/ instruction; [æ] harrow/ banged/ fang blends with [e] of meant/ correction/ veriest/ head/ dead and alliterative [f] forged fang and palatal nasal [ŋ] banged/ fang/ ringer;
  • stanza 3 echoes assonant [e] in pretence and in later tercets: let there/ any/ decoration/ shelf/ retort; rusted/ set /wrecked ;       
  • note also an[ɔː] chain following the –ion nouns: talk/ decoration/ for/ or/ retort/ -forced/ horse alongside a cluster of [st] consonants  rusted/ stone/ stable;
  • (6) blends assonant  [ai] lined/ eye/ mighty with [e] sweat/ cobwebbed/ dead [ei] veined/ reins/ hames and [ɪticking/ winkers/ simple; [l] sounds collars lined/ tackle/ simple;
  • Heaney continues to ring the assonant changes in (7) using [ʌ] musts/ cut/ put/ ungulled;[ɪ] resounds: piss/ Inside, in/ irreconcilable; the [e] of bedding/ test/ irreconcilable carries into (8) –sensed alongside [ʌ] Gulliver and the new [u]/ [uːvirtue/ approved.