“The Village Blacksmith is a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, first published in 1840. The poem describes a local blacksmith and his daily life. The blacksmith serves as a role model who balances his job with the role he plays with his family and community.
Longfellow said the poem was a tribute to his ancestor Stephen Longfellow, who had been a blacksmith, a schoolmaster, then a town clerk. In 1745, this ancestor was the first Longfellow to make his way to Portland, Maine, the town where the poet would be born. The poem was written early in Longfellow’s poetic career, around the same time he published his first collection, Voices of the Night, in 1839. The book included his poem A Psalm of Life. On October 5, 1839, he recorded in his journal: “Wrote a new Psalm of Life. It is ‘The Village Blacksmith.'” It would be another year before the poem was published, however. Longfellow wrote to his father on October 25, 1840: “There will be a kind of Ballad on a Blacksmith in the next Knickerbocker, which you may consider, if you please, as a song in praise of your ancestors at Newbury.”
The actual village blacksmith in the poem, however, was a Cambridge resident named Dexter Pratt, a neighbor of Longfellow’s. Pratt’s house is still standing at 54 Brattle Street in Cambridge. Several other blacksmiths have been posited as inspirations for the character in the poem, including “The Learned Blacksmith” Elihu Burritt, to whom Longfellow once offered a scholarship to attend Harvard College.
Several people, both in the United States and in England, took credit for inspiring the poem with varying amounts of evidence. The Longfellow family became annoyed with the preponderance of claims. In 1922, the poet’s son Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow responded to these people in his book Random Memories. In a section called “Quips and Cranks”, he wrote:
A short time ago I saw in an English newspaper that the “village smithy” was in a certain English village that was named; as a matter of fact, as everybody knows, it was on Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Village Blacksmith” was first published in the November 1840 issue of The Knickerbocker. It was soon after printed as part of Longfellow’s poetry collection Ballads and Other Poems in 1841. The collection, which also included “The Wreck of the Hesperus”, was instantly popular.
In 1879, years after the publication of “The Village Blacksmith”, the local schoolchildren in Cambridge, Massachusetts presented Longfellow with an armchair made from “the spreading chestnut tree” in the poem which had recently been cut down. Under the cushion of the chair is a brass plate on which is inscribed, in part: “This chair made from the wood of the spreading chestnut-tree is presented as an expression of his grateful regard and veneration by the children of Cambridge”. From then on, Longfellow made it a rule to allow schoolchildren to be admitted into his study to see the chair. He also composed a poem to commemorate his gift called “From my Arm-Chair”. The site on Brattle Street in Cambridge where the tree once stood is now designated with a stone marker.
The poem, along with several others by Longfellow, was translated into Spanish by Colombian poet Rafael Pombo. In several interviews, baseball player and manager Billy Southworth noted that his father recited the poem to him as a child, that he himself memorized it, and that it inspired him as an adult.
Several quotes from the poem were used in Buster Keaton’s 1922 silent comedy The Blacksmith (1922).”
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…
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.