The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” emphasizes how the life and work of a common working man can provide an example of persistence and accomplishment in spite of trials and tragedies. The poem is developed in eight stanzas of six ballad-like lines of alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.

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The poem begins by picturing the site of blacksmith’s workplace as “Under a spreading chestnut-tree,” then specifically describes the smith himself as a man made strong by his work: “mighty,” with “brawny armsstrong as iron bands.” The smith’s physical appearance continues to be the focus in stanza 2. He wears his black hair “long.” He is “tan” from working outside in the sun. More important, however, his character can now be revealed. He is “honest,” willing to do any type of work, and “owes not any man.”

The third stanza centers on how important the smith’s work is to village society. All year long, people can “hear” the “bellows blow” and the regular beat of “his heavy sledge.” The sounding rhythms of his workplace are as central to the villagers as the tolling of the church bell when the “evening sun is low.” In stanza 4, even children realize the significance of the blacksmith as they stop to watch the smith work on their way “home from school” and enjoy the excitement of “the flaming forge,” the roaring bellows, and the “burning sparks.”

The poem moves away from the blacksmith’s workplace to the town church in the fifth stanza. With his children, the widowed smith listens to the “parson pray and preach” and to “his daughter’s voice,/ Singing in the village choir.” Although the service “makes his heart rejoice,” in stanza 6 the sound of his daughter’s singing reminds him of his wife’s “voice,/ Singing in Paradise,” her death, and the “grave,” which cause him to shed a tear because of life’s trials.

Stanzas 7 and 8 summarize the message of the blacksmith’s example. His life is a mixture of ordinary human experience: “Toiling,—rejoicing,—sorrowing.” Yet he persists, regardless, accomplishing something every day, thus deserving “a night’s repose.” Just as the blacksmith’s life has been shaped by meeting and facing life events, so each person must be willing to continue on with life formed “at the flaming forge” with “Each burning deed and thought” shaped at the “sounding anvil.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 825

Although loosely balladlike in form and although included in Ballads and Other Poems, “The Village Blacksmith” departs from the traditional ballad in certain important ways, as implied by Longfellow himself when he referred to it as “a kind of ballad.” Instead of the traditional narrative or chronological development of the ballad, Longfellow employs descriptive passages of the usual and the commonplace to develop his poem. Like many of Longfellow’s shorter lyrics, the poem centers on a single item—in this case, an ordinary blacksmith—and uses description of that item as a means to develop a lesson about life. Although a traditional ballad would ordinarily include some exciting or climactic event or turning point, no such narrative device appears in “The Village Blacksmith.” Instead, the poem proceeds in a natural order from a description of the blacksmith and his character (stanzas 1-2) to his importance to the village (stanza 4) to his religious commitment and persistence in life (stanzas 5-6) to the lesson his life provides for the reader (stanzas 7-8).

A second way in which the poem differs from the traditional ballad form is the use of six-line stanzas (rhyming abcbdb), rather than the usual four-line approach (rhyming abcb). Within this rather unusual ballad stanza length, Longfellow also varies the meter of the individual lines, thus relieving monotony and providing emphasis for the content of the poem. Of the forty-eight lines in the poem, twenty show variations from the expected regular metric system of an iambic tetrameter line followed by an iambic trimeter line. Often Longfellow substitutes an anapestic foot for an iambic foot, as in the first three words of the second line of stanza 3: “You can hear his bellows blow.” The most remarkable variation occurs in the first line of stanza 8, when Longfellow departs completely from iambic meter and uses falling rhythm to slow down the line and emphasize the mixture of experiences in the blacksmith’s life: “Toiling,—rejoicing,—sorrowing.”

Throughout the poem, appropriate images related to the blacksmith’s vocation and life are used. Visual images dominate stanzas 1 and 2, beginning with the reference to the “spreading chestnut-tree” (the setting is said to be based on the blacksmith’s workplace in Longfellow’s own town of Cambridge, Massachusetts) and including the emphasis on the blacksmith’s strength and appearance as evidenced in his “large and sinewy hands,” “his brawny arms,” and his perspiring “brow.” Stanza 3, by contrast, is dominated by aural images: the sound of “his bellows blow[ing]” and “his heavy sledge/ With measured beat and slow.”

Visual images resume in stanzas 4, 5, and 6, mixing with more sound images. The children “see the flaming forge” and “hear the bellows roar.” The blacksmith is pictured at “church,” sitting with his sons, listening to the prayer and sermon and “his daughter’s voice” in the choir. These sounds and sights remind him of his wife, now dead, and cause him to wipe “A tear out of his eyes.” Stanza 7 depends on generalized images of the blacksmith’s life routine—his mixed emotions as he “goes” through life, his daily work of accomplishing “something,” and his “night’s repose.”

Besides appropriate images, Longfellow employs a few meaningful similes to develop his poem. Similes are used in stanzas 1 and 2 to fill out the picture of the blacksmith’s strength and appearance. He has arms “strong as iron bands” and a face “like the tan.” Both features grow naturally out of the blacksmith’s occupation, a vocation that centers on working with iron and often performed outdoors, where the flames of the forge are not a threat to buildings. Similarly, the simile in stanza 3 that describes the rhythm of the blacksmith’s daily work “Like a sexton ringing the village bell” at sunset is appropriate to the setting of the poem in a small village centered around religion and churchgoing.

The rural simile of stanza 4 is similarly apt for small-town life, as Longfellow describes “the burning sparks” as being “Like chaff from a threshing-floor.” The climactic simile in the poem is in stanza 6, however, when both literally and figuratively the daughter’s singing sounds to the blacksmith “like her mother’s voice,/ Singing in Paradise!” It is this reminder of death and afterlife that causes the blacksmith to weep and consider, at least briefly, the tragedy of his own life.

Helping to redeem the poem’s perhaps too explicit lesson-giving is the structuring of the final stanza around the metaphor of blacksmithing. In the final lines of the poem, Longfellow weaves the didactic truth of the need of persistence in life with the daily objects of the blacksmith’s trade:

Thus at the flaming forge of life  Our fortunes must be wrought;Thus on its sounding anvil shaped  Each burning deed and thought.

The use of the words “flaming forge,” “wrought,” “sounding anvil,” “shaped,” and “burning” help to elaborate the message of the poem in figurative language appropriate to the vocation of the poem’s title.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 148

Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

Gale, Robert L. A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Gartner, Matthew. “Longfellow’s Place: The Poet and Poetry of Craigie House.” The New England Quarterly 73, no. 1 (March, 2000): 32-57.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

Suchard, Allen. “The Nineteenth Century: Romanticism in American Poetry.” In American Poetry. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Trachtenberg, Alan. Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

Tucker, Edward L. “The Meeting of Hawthorne and Longfellow in 1838.” ANQ 13, no. 4 (Fall, 2000): 18-21.

Turco, Lewis P. Visions and Revisions of American Poetry. Fayetteville: University of Alabama Press, 1986.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, His Poetry and Prose. New York: Ungar, 1986.

Waggoner, Hyatt H. “Five New England Poets.” In American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

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