Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 825 words.)