The Village Blacksmith
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1840
Our poem this week is one that every schoolchild in America used to know, as it had entered the hearts and minds of the people, expressing much of what we considered to be best in our land. It’s Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith.”
And it was a part of what once was a real folk culture in America. So much so, in fact, that George Orwell, in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, bemoaning the loss of folk wisdom, parodies its opening lines in a dreadful way. They are drummed into Winston Smith’s head, in the torture chambers of the Ministry of Love:
Under the spreading chestnut tree,
I sold you and you sold me.
For Winston is tormented into betraying his love, Julia, as she is tormented into betraying him. The Ministry of Love, indeed: better named in Newspeak as Miniluv — where in fact there is a minimum of love.
But Longfellow’s poem is about love, honesty, piety, good work, and manly fidelity to duty – duty to one’s family, one’s neighbors, and God. It isn’t a complicated poem, and it isn’t meant to be. It doesn’t mistake obscurity for depth, flippancy for humor, or banality for simplicity. Longfellow has met such men as his blacksmith, and he supposes that his readers have met them too. He holds up for us the blacksmith as a man among men, one whom children love and grown men and women honor, who earns his bread honestly, and who looks forward to a world beyond this one, where he may see again that woman he loves, the mother of his children. We see him at his forge, his great hands and arms hammering out what is useful or beautiful for man, and we see him at church, standing tall in prayer.
Longfellow does give us, in the final stanzas, a moral to the poem, and that perhaps is not to our contemporary tastes. We prefer our “morals” to take the form of political mugging and posing. But we are all, says Longfellow, called to be like that blacksmith. Life is no walk in a garden. If we want to accomplish anything of worth, we must labor at the burning forge of each day, flinting out each ardent word and thought.
Perhaps that neglects to look at what we do not accomplish by sweat, but what we receive by being open to it. Perhaps it privileges work over leisure, and deliberate employment over the ease and receptiveness of prayer. But I don’t think that Longfellow was prescribing a law here for all human activity that is worth our while. He was too sane for that, and, frankly, too sweet and constant a lover of children, for whose sake we sweat. The aim, after all, is that church, that choir, and that peace.
Under a spreading chestnut-tree The village smithy stands; The smith, a mighty man is he, With large and sinewy hands, And the muscles of his brawny arms Are strong as iron bands. His hair is crisp, and black, and long; His face is like the tan; His brow is wet with honest sweat, He earns whate'er he can, And looks the whole world in the face, For he owes not any man. Week in, week out, from morn till night, You can hear his bellows blow; You can hear him swing his heavy sledge, With measured beat and slow, Like a sexton ringing the village bell, When the evening sun is low. And children coming home from school Look in at the open door; They love to see the flaming forge, And hear the bellows roar, And catch the burning sparks that fly Like chaff from a threshing-floor. He goes on Sunday to the church, And sits among his boys; He hears the parson pray and preach, He hears his daughter's voice Singing in the village choir, And it makes his heart rejoice. It sounds to him like her mother's voice Singing in Paradise! He needs must think of her once more, How in the grave she lies; And with his hard, rough hand he wipes A tear out of his eyes. Toiling,—rejoicing,—sorrowing, Onward through life he goes; Each morning sees some task begin, Each evening sees it close; Something attempted, something done, Has earned a night's repose. Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend, For the lesson thou hast taught! Thus at the flaming forge of life Our fortunes must be wrought; Thus on its sounding anvil shaped Each burning deed and thought.
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