Then crouch within the door—
Red—is the Fire’s common tint—
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame’s conditions—
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the Light
Of unannointed Blaze—
Least Village, boasts its Blacksmith—
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs—within—
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammers, and with Blaze
Until the designated Light
Repudiate the Forge—
F401 (1862) J365
In one of her most studied and anthologized works, Dickinson dares the reader to confront a soul being battered by God. She begins with the dare: are you brave enough to see a white-hot soul? Her metaphor is that of the blacksmith, the ore, and the forge. The dare is to “crouch within the door” to the blacksmith’s shop. Forging the raw metal into a usable tool is a violent process. How many of us are willing to face the forge of our own souls? It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Life is rarely gentle—particularly to our poets and visionaries.
|Blacksmith with soul? Or poet with poem.
The first two stanzas outline the process in all its drama. The third explicitly outlines the metaphor. The fourth, in classic Dickinson style, turns our understanding of the poem on its head. The poet begins by setting the reader down at the smithy’s door. She is the guide. She points to the red flame of the forge hearth: it’s “Fire’s common tint.” The metal will also turn red after being placed into the forge. But once the bellows are applied or the metal left within the flame long enough, the fire heats the metal until “the vivid Ore” has no more impurities to burn off; its volatile gases have burned off, and it is left “Without a color.” The blacksmith removes the metal and it “quivers” in its white heat, ready to be hammered and shaped.
Yet “Unannointed Blaze” would indicate that the metal has not yet been annealed—a cooling process that strengthens the metal yet gives it a bit of give so that it will not break when struck. Dickinson could have used the more precise term “unannealed,” but there is a wonderful resonance with “Unannointed” that not only suggests the brittle state of the metal but the vulnerable state of the soul. It must go through further trials before it can withstand more blows.
Dickinson makes sure her metaphor is clearly understood. The forge and its anvil represent the severe difficulties we must deal with in life, but unlike the noise made as the blacksmith hammers his hot iron, our internal forge is “finer” and “tugs” silently at us from within.
The ore is worked and refined through hammering, shaping, and re-heating until the blacksmith is satisfied. Certain tools need heating to red-yellow. Others perform best if heated until blue. The blacksmith must decide. This is what the poet means by “designated Light.”
But then the twist: at some point the ore is going to stop the process. The blazing heat, the hammering and shaping—enough is enough. The Ore, having reached the appropriate light, “Repudiate[s] the Forge.”
Let’s put some flesh on that metaphor. The blacksmith is the agent throughout the poem. He selects the ore, subjects it to heat, and then hammers it on his anvil. He will also anneal and temper the metal. He creates something new, or re-formed something old: a knife, for example, out of raw ore or scrap metal. The metal must submit: it’s only metal! Until—and that’s the Dickinsonian part—the Soul in its white heat finally draws the line and repudiates the forge.
If the blacksmith is God and Ore is the soul, we see that God fits us for some purpose through quite brutal means—“With Hammers, and with Blaze.” We think of the suffering of the saints and how they emerged purified and holy. We are certainly not meant to think of the poor souls who are beaten down by the trials of life until they are dispirited, meek things. But the last two lines imply that at some point the ore speaks back to the blacksmith. It rejects and refuses the hammer and heat. Perhaps this is a type of rebellion or perhaps it is the Blacksmith God’s goal to have a creation with an independent and fully formed sense of rightness and judgment.
The poem, for all its simple metaphor, is very abstract. Still, I take it as a very personal poem. Dickinson, I think, is writing about her own soul here. Her torment “soundless tugs” within her, yet she perceives her Blacksmith as no less violent than the local smith. She has been heated, hit with repeated shaping blows, heated again… etc. At some point she will repudiate him.
Some scholars consider the metaphor to reflect the poetic process. It's not easy writing poems, and Dickinson dares the reader to peek in at the white-hot heat that forges them. She would be the blacksmith in this case. She writes and re-writes and tinkers with them, stopping only when the poem has enough life in it to let her know it's done.