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.