“Poetry presupposes an inspired knowledge of man’s sensuous and spiritual nature. Smithcraft—for the smith was also carpenter, mason, shipwright, and toolmaker—presupposes an inspired knowledge of how to transform lifeless material into active forms. No ancient smith would have dared to proceed without the aids of medicine and poetry. The charcoal used on his forge had been made, with spells, at a certain time of the year from timber of certain sacred trees; and the leather of the forge bellows, from the skin of a sacred animal ritually sacrificed. Before starting a task, he and his assistant were obliged to purify themselves with medicines and lustrations, and to placate the Spites which habitually crowd around forge and anvil. If he happened to be forging a sword, the water in which it was to be tempered must have magical properties—May dew, or spring water in which a virgin princess had washed her hair. The whole work was done to the accompaniment of poetic spells.
Such spells matched the rhythm of the smith’s hammers; and these were of unequal weight.
A sledge hammer was swung by the assistant; the smith himself managed the lighter hammer. To beat out hot metal successfully, one must work fast and follow a prearranged scheme.
The smith with his tongs lays the glowing lump of iron on the anvil, then touches with his hammer the place where the sledge blow is to fall; next he raps on the anvil the number of blows required. Down comes the sledge; the smith raps again for another blow, or series of blows. Experience teaches him how many can be got in while the iron is still hot. So each state of every process had its peculiar metre, to which descriptive words became attached; and presently the words found their own tunes … Nor did the smith … let caprice rule the number and shape of ornaments that he introduced into his work. Whether he was forging a weapon, or a piece of armour, or a tool, or a cauldron, or a jewelled collar, every element in the design had a magical significance.”
~ Robert Graves, from his essay “Harp, Anvil, Oar” in The Structure of Verse, edited by Harvey Gross (The Ecco Press, 1979)