Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Village Blacksmith

By H.W. Longfellow

When I was in the 6th standard at school in India, a subject called "Higher English" was introduced. The text for this was a small handbook thinner than any textbook that we had studied till then and each page had either a very small story or a poem in it. When we started our school year we found that our head mistress("HM" as we called her) was going to teach this subject. This was enough to cause great concern & fear among all of us. Nobody had ever talked to HM, we only knew to run when we heard her coming. The truants in our class knew her a little better as they had tasted the sharpness of her cane & her tongue. She was greatly feared by other teachers as well.
With this in mind we awaited our first class on higher english with a lot of dread. Little did we know that HM was a great lover of poetry & literature. She started with Wordsworth's Daffodils & we were transported from that crowded, dusty little classroom to the beautiful English countryside. None of us had seen a daffodil before, but she conjured up a picture so wonderful with her explanation that it came to symbolise a thing of great beauty. Gone was her knit brow and sharp voice that we were accustomed to, instead we found a warm, humorous and witty teacher. It was my first taste of English literature & I fell in love with it, reading and re-reading that little book till it was in tatters by the first year. We also got to know our teacher a lot better, she taught us to enjoy learning and encouraged us to discuss our opinions ( a very rare thing then). Her favorite poets were Longfellow & Wordsworth & this is a tribute to my wonderful English teacher. Much later in life I learnt that HM (Mrs Vijaya Nair) had gone through hard times and the reason that she had been so strict with us was because she wanted to make sure that none of us would go the way that her only son had. Having lost her husband at a young age, she had not be able to control her wayward son who had fallen into bad company.


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

H.W.Longfellow was an American poet born in Portland Maine & educated in England. He taught at Harvard College & endured a lot of tragedies in his personal life. Longfellow's blacksmith shop was more than poetic license. It sat on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the proprietor was one Dexter Pratt. And yes, the "spreading chestnut tree" stood out front of the shop. Brattle Street was widened in 1876, and the tree fell victim to progress. However, the children of Cambridge, as well as the town, took the wood and had a chair produced from it in honor of the poet. It was presented to him on his 72nd birthday.
Longfellow was so impressed with the gift that he composed a poem for the children of Cambridge as a way of saying thanks.