Monday, January 14, 2013

Stoke the fire of imagination: What the Village Blacksmith teaches

Photo courtesy of stock.xchng. ©2006 Atroszko. 

Under a spreading Chestnut tree
  The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
  With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles in his brawny arms
  Are strong as iron bands.

“The Village Blacksmith” was my very first encounter with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I was in third grade and my class was memorizing a new poem every month for the year. Of all the poems we covered the only other two I remember are “The Dual” and “Keep a Poem inYour Pocket.”

The other poems were fun and easy to learn, but none of them stoked the fires of my imagination the way that village blacksmith did.

In eight, six-line stanzas we are given a vividly detailed story of love won and lost, of a life that continues on despite the grief, and of the lesson we can take away from one man’s example.

I’ve always wondered if there really was a spreading chestnut tree, if a smithy was nestled beneath its branches, and if inside there worked a dedicated yet gentle man. Was he a friend? Was he an adult in the place where Longfellow grew up? Or was he a stranger Longfellow noticed in passing and became as enthralled with as the children?

Or was the blacksmith just a story after all? A tale cobbled together from bits and pieces of life experiences.

I was reminded of this poem when a friend quoted from the last stanza a few days ago, and it’s caused me to ponder those words, the rhythm, and the purpose ever since.

As writers many of us dream of creating the next great novel. We pour hours into plot lines. We fill days hammering out character descriptions. And we spend weeks honing the description of our fictional world down to the last popping ember.

In the process it’s easy to forget what a story is: a snapshot of a specific moment that conveys the essence of humanity’s greatest joys and sorrows.

I learned a valuable lesson in re-reading my favorite childhood poem this past week: Anyone can create a world in 500 pages.

It takes a true artist to capture an entire life in 48 lines.