Where’d he go?
The Village Smithy… he was just here the other day…
I heard a story about a young man who had just married and his wife was expecting their first child. He had bought the old blacksmith shop from a man he’d known all his life. It felt good. It felt right. It felt safe. Good work. Honest work… a life-long vocation for an eager provider. All would be good in these early 1900’s! Three weeks after he took over the shop there was a commotion around the corner. Shop owners took to the streets and young children went running after the chugging sound to see the large coach on four wheels producing a cloud of smoke. Life was good, yet life was changing. Again.
In grade school, each member of our 3rd grade class was assigned to pick a poem and memorize it. A skill builder I suppose as we then recited that poem in front of the class. Go! First, there was the chore of reading over many poems. Then I picked one. Then the memorizing began. That was the 1960’s. Life was good, yet life was changing. Again. Lot’s has happened since then. The poem I picked was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” from 1840. Classic. ‘Everyman’ kind of words. Reflections on community, family, vocation and stability. Lot’s has happened since then, too!
To this day, I can recite the first verse to this epic prose. As I stand gazing in the mirror I see the man I’ve become… aging, gray, less wrinkled than most… yet bulkier than some of my friends… these words make the ‘young boy’ in me surface. And I wonder if I will ever be to others the hero that Longfellow wrote of here…
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.
Hard work is good for the soul, the body and the community in which we live. Others notice. They will. They do. In fact, they must. The village smithy is a role model to the town’s young boys. His presence and placement in their lives year upon year, week after week, and day after day bring a certain stability and confidence for all. Still, the smithy knows to find rest in the shade of the Chestnut tree!
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 bellows 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.
Here’s the blue-collared American. Hard-working. Working hard. My dad was that kind of guy. He wanted better for his children and he pushed them slowly and with deliberate vision to hammer out a life better than his. This doesn’t changed. Parents always want that for their children. But, some in this generation won’t have it as good as their parents. There is an ‘entitlement’ flame flickering in their shop and they may not get it until their parents pass it to them when they’re gone. And that could be long while for many! I know a couple who are worth millions. Their children don’t know. What if we all were sons and daughters of a blacksmith, earning what we can… while we can?
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 a threshing-floor.
And here is the hero figure not to just his own children but to all who pass by! The little ones are attracted by danger. The fire invites. The fire can be good and bad… but, this man is one of the town’s protectors! He controls the fire! He has good cause. The next two verses speak of the inner man… his pain, his hope, his reality…
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.
Where is this smithy today? Is he there in the church? Does he listen to the parson pray and preach? Who will teach his boys not to steal? Where is the father who tells his son, “this is how our family lives… we do not toss our elders to the ground when we are caught being contrary to all that is right and good.” Where is the father who teaches justice? Six bullets for what? Whose father told his son it is OK to cut off the head of an unarmed man? When is that ever OK? Will this father tell his boys to watch out for their sister? Her life is precious; a reflection of her late mother. Where has this man gone? Wasn’t he just here a day ago?
This is what Longfellow wants us to know and trust… the man we see and the man who is hidden is the same. Intertwined. Integrated. We are him. He is us! I am the smithy. You are, too! The life we share has rhythm. There is work. There is joy. There is sadness; and we own it… all of it… as God owns our very souls…
Are these last verses about the smithy or about our God? Or both? One thing is for sure… this world could use a few more village blacksmiths
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.
Oh, did I forget? This is no parable…. the village smithy was real… he was a Cambridge resident… a man named Dexter Pratt, a neighbor of Longfellow’s… just five houses up the street from his. Real as real can be. Can you see him? Where did he go?