I happened again across Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Village Blacksmith” recently and took my time reading through it. Longfellow was from Maine (it was part of Massachusetts at the time, but we try to forget about that unfortunate era) and was familiar with the sights and sounds of the Portland waterfront and the shops of the tradesmen that lined the streets. His travels around the world gave him plenty to draw on for poetic inspiration, but he mostly returned to the stories and scenes of his beloved New England in his writing.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1868. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
I find this poem compelling. Not because it’s a lofty hagiography of some imaginary hero figure (it isn’t), not because it romanticizes some lost trade (it doesn’t), but because it is a reminder of the humanity behind the history. Part of our spiel here at M&T is the value of using antique, heritage tools. Yes, they are both inexpensive and high quality, a dualism that is extremely hard to find anyplace else. But even more, they offer an intangible connection to the hands of those (like this village blacksmith) who used them many years ago. Longfellow had in mind some man as he wrote this, or perhaps combined several men, but we know that people very much like this blacksmith lived in every village and along every winding road. They lived a life of joy and tragedy, blessing and loss, and toilsome but often rewarding labor. And though these individuals are long gone, left as names in a dusty book or letters carved on stone, many of their tools are still here, and they still work.
“The Village Blacksmith”
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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.