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Saturday, February 14, 2009

So You Think You Know the Village Blacksmith...

For many people, their earliest images of who a blacksmith or farrier is and what s/he does were formed by the immortal words of the poem, The Village Blacksmith, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Over the years, the short poem has inspired some people to expand it artistically, as you'll see today.

First, some history: Longfellow, before he was famous, was a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When he walked to and from the campus, he passed a mighty chestnut tree, under which stood the modest smithy of his neighbor, Dexter Pratt. Dexter is believed to be the inspiration for the poem, written probably in 1839 and published in 1840. Longfellow was paid $15 for the poem by Knickerbocker magazine.

Dexter's shop and tree probably would have become Cambridge's greatest tourist attraction, except that there was a curve in the street where it stood and the city wanted to straighten it, so the big tree had to go and, with it, Dexter's shop and forge. A chair was made from the tree for Longfellow, and you can see it in the museum of his house.

The poem has outlived Longfellow, Dexter, and the tree. However, most people rarely remember the lines that come after the openers, nor do they know the story that the poem tells.

Today's blog post is three versions of Longfellow's poem. The first is a clever "reading" of the poem by Longfellow's ghost.

The second is a musical score of the poem from a rare 1930s 78-rpm record, with sound effects and a chorus sounding suspiciously like the Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz, and from roughly the same time and same record label.

The third is the most rare of all: a silent film pantomime of the poem. There's no documentation to go with this rough gem, which is copyrighted by the distributor as 1936 but looks to be older. In the film, you will see first Longfellow's tall colonial house, then the more formal home of Dexter Pratt, though I doubt it was so grand when he lived there. I don't know if the entire film was shot in Cambridge or just those buildings. Both are still standing on Brattle Street, and are open to the public.

If you have a good Internet connection, you can create your own music video by hitting the play button on the movie and once the credits are through, start the recited or musical versions. They seem to fit together. If you don't have the bandwidth, I hope you will enjoy them separately and refresh your memory of what Longfellow was trying to express in the poem, and why this poem has stood the test of almost 200 years.

Contemplating our friend Edward Martin's death yesterday, I went looking for the poem, and those last lines reminded me so much of Edward:

"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."

Yes, there is a reason that poem has survived the test of time. Dexter Pratt perhaps helped Longfellow cut through the intellectual mental clutter of Harvard, or even writer's block, by demonstrating that the broken wheel you see in pieces on the ground in the morning will be repaired and back on a carriage when you pass again at the end of the day, and that there would be another task to face the next day. If you have a plan, the skill, and do things in the right order, you can get the job done, and that advice applies to most things in life.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing. No use without permission. You only need to ask.

Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a digest-type email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page).

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