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The Children's Gift To Longfellow

by Andy Juell

photos courtesy of National Park Service, Longfellow National Historic Site


Published in the September 2001 Issue of Anvil Magazine

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's classic poem, "The Village Blacksmith," has stood as a tribute to American blacksmiths and farriers for well over a century. This is the story of the history of that beautiful "spreading chestnut tree."

The spreading Chestnut tree, on Brattle Street, Cambridge, Mass.

 

THE VILLAGE BLACKSMITH

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.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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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.
 

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The chair is described as a "black-stained Eastlake-style armchair" made from the wood of the "Spreading Chestnut Tree" by H. Edgar Hartwell of Boston. The seat was tufted leather, the seat rail carved in the gothic or black-letter style with a portion of the verse from the original poem etched around the rails:

And children coming home from school,
Look in at the open door,
And catch the burning sparks that fly,
Like chaff from a threshing floor.

The chair was presented to Longfellow on February 22, 1879, by the children of Cambridge, a few of which probably "caught those burning sparks" in their youth. The chair currently resides in the first-floor study at Longfellow House, at the Longfellow National Historic Site, 105 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, under the care of the National Park Service.

Longfellow was so impressed with the gift that he composed a poem for the children of Cambridge as a way of saying thanks:

 

FROM MY ARMCHAIR

Am I a king, that I should call my own
This splendid Ebon throne?
Or by what reason, or what right divine,
Can I proclaim it mine?

Only perhaps, by right divine of song
It may to me belong;
Only because the spreading chestnut tree
Of old was sung by me.

There by the blacksmith's forge,
beside the street,
Its blossoms white and sweet
Enticed the bees, until it seemed alive,
And murmured like a hive.

And when the winds of autumn, with a shout,
Tossed its great arms about.
The shining chestnuts, bursting from the sheath,
Dropped to the ground beneath.

And now some fragments of its branches bare,
Shaped as a stately chair,
Have by my hearthstone found a home at last,
And a whisper of the past.

And thus, dear children, have ye made for me
This day a jubilee.
And to my more than threescore years and ten,
Brought back my youth again.

Only your love and remembrance could,
Give life to this dead wood,
And make these branches, leafless
now so long, Blossom again in song.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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