Alliterative metre does not preclude lyricism and grace, and its sounds are not often as relentlessly percussive as here. The anonymous portrayer of the "Smoke-blackened smiths" has seized an opportunity to use alliteration at its palate-cracking best to mimic the sound-scape of a busy forge. In fact, Anon adds further sound effects to ensure we hear the huff-puffing bellows, the hammering and crashing of steel against steel. This is very skilfully done. Notice how, when "Lus, bus" changes by a vowel to "Las, das", the clashing actually seems to get louder and harsher.
Besides "the din of here dintes" ("the din of their blows"), resounding throughout the poem, the writer conjures the noisiness of the smiths themselves: they yell for more coal ("Col! Col!"); they spit, gnaw, gnash, groan and "spellen many spelles." RT Davies, the editor of Mediaeval English Lyrics, the anthology where I first discovered this poem, translates "spellen many spelles" as "tell many tales" – which is plausible. But other translations give "reel off many charms" and that's an attractive reading, too, because blacksmiths have traditionally been associated with magic. Even in the Middle Ages they were held in awe for their control of fire and their ability to bend metal. So the poet may be tempering the enormous realism of his/her description with a little bit of folklore about magic powers. Similarly, "kongons" – translated by Davies as "changelings" – who are either "snub-nosed" or "crooked" ("cammede") is suggestive of the myths about the first blacksmiths. A looser translation, nicely in the alliterative spirit, offers "hunched hobgoblins".
Davies is surely right when he says that the poet must be writing from first-hand experience. Perhaps he worked as a farrier. Or perhaps Anon was the wife of a blacksmith, or someone unluckily living next door to a smithy. The poet is a brilliant journalist, giving us both the atmosphere and the close-up detail. He/she knows the aprons are made of bull-hide, and the smiths' legs are protected against flying sparks, and has clearly witnessed the complicated iron-working by the master-smith described in lines 17 and 18 – where a change of rhythm and a longer line contribute to our sense of the finer motor skills involved. Another lively quality is the personal feeling expressed. Those imprecations may be half-humorous, but there's no doubt of the underlying wrath of "Christ, give them sorwe!" These smiths are devilishly annoying, especially when they work at night.
The poster on another forum who described the author as a "15th-century Victor Meldrew" makes a good point. Like the grumpy protagonist of the popular British sitcom, One Foot in the Grave, the poet may be exaggerating commonly held sentiments, and perhaps at the time would have qualified as "the people's champion" against the irritants of modern life.
"The Blacksmiths" is a one-off. Love-lyrics, ballads, sacred poems are common at the period, but not this sort of realistic evocation of the chores of daily life. It shows, I think, the hand of a skilled literary artist. Chanted aloud, it must have won sympathy and laughter from the audience – perhaps an audience including blacksmiths?
The poem comes from the BM Arundel collection. Davies has modernised the spelling to a judicious extent, so that, with some glosses, the poem can be understood without too much brain-bursting. It's best read aloud, remembering that the "e" at the end of a word would have usually been sounded.
Swarte-smeked smethes, smattered with smoke,
Drive me to deth with den of here dintes:
Swich nois on nightes ne herd men never,
What knavene cry and clattering of knockes!
The cammede kongons cryen after 'Col! Col!'
And blowen here bellewes that all here brain brestes.
'Huf, puf,' saith that on, 'Haf, paf,' that other.
They spitten and sprawlen and spellen many spelles,
They gnawen and gnacchen, they groan togedire,
And holden hem hote with here hard hamers.
Of a bole hide ben here barm-felles,
Here shankes ben shackeled for the fere-flunderes.
Hevy hameres they han that hard ben handled,
Stark strokes they striken on a steled stock.
'Lus, bus, las, das,' rowten by rowe.
Swiche dolful a dreme the Devil it todrive!
The maistre longeth a litil and lasheth a lesse,
Twineth hem twein and toucheth a treble.
'Tik, tak, hic, hac, tiket, taket, tik, tak,
Lus, bus, las, das.' Swich lif they leden,
Alle clothemeres, Christ hem give sorwe!
May no man for brenwateres on night han his rest.
Dintes – blows
Knavene – workmen, helpers
Cammede kongons - snub-nosed, or crooked, changelings
"That all here brain brestes" – fit to burst their brains
Spellen many spelles – tell many tales?
"Holden he hote" – keep themselves hot
Bole hide – bull's hide
Ben – are
Barm-felles - aprons
Shakeled for – protected from
Fere-flunderes – literally "fire-finders"
A kenning "sparks"
Steled stock – steel anvil
Rowten by row – (they) crash in turn
"Swich dolful a dreme the Devil it todrive – May the Devil put an end to such a miserable vision (Davies has "so miserable a racket" )
Longeth – lengthen (a piece of iron)
Lasheth a lesse – hammers a smaller piece
Toucheth a treble – strikes a treble note?
Alle clothemeres – all who clothes horses (mares) in iron armour
"May no man for brenwateres no night han his rest" – no man can sleep at night for (the noise of ) the smiths burning water.
Another great kenning: smiths are dubbed "burnwaters" because they dip hot metal in water.