Something Attempted, Something Done

Something Attempted, Something Done

This week’s choice is “The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a poem that praises the simple life.

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.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807—1882)

Poem 269. The Village Blacksmith

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Longfellow introduces us to an extinct breed—the blacksmith who was once such a feature of rural life, producing metalwork for farm implements and carts, and shoeing horses.

We see the forge in its place in the village “Under a spreading chestnut-tree”—the smith is large and solid—“A mighty man is he”, just like the tree that shelters his smithy. We get a really detailed picture of the smith, even down to the “honest sweat” on his brow. Longfellow admires him for his independence “For he owes not any man”.

Longfellow emphasises the long hours “week in, week out, from morn till night” of hard physical work, the smith working rhythmically at the anvil, beating the iron like a bell-ringer in the church while schoolchildren watch cascades of sparks fly as the bellows of the forge are pumped and the fire grows hotter—“And catch the burning sparks that fly/Like chaff from a threshing floor”.

The smith has been married and widowed, it seems—he has a daughter who sings in the choir (his “boys” are his apprentices, I think, rather than his sons) and his joy at hearing her sing so like her mother is tempered by his sorrow. We see that underneath a stolid and perhaps gruff exterior, this man is as human as any other as “with his hard, rough hand he wipes/A tear out of his eyes”.

Longfellow ends with two stanzas that form the moral of his story—here is a man whose life is one of toil, of joy and of sorrow. He perseveres with his daily tasks, completing some item of work every day and earning “a night’s repose”: from this, Longfellow generalises that every person must work “at the flaming forge of life” to earn our right to ease and rest and there “each burning deed and thought” is beaten out of the raw metal of the person’s character.

I like it because it paints a picture—as so many of my favourite poems do—that is very clear, and because it tells the story of the smith without being tedious. We can picture the smith and his forge, and we have an idea of his simple pleasure at attending church and listening to the hymns. The moral exemplifies the Victorian ideal of the working-class man who has great inner worth and value but isn’t encouraged to rise above his station—Longfellow paints the smith as a worthy man whose simple and humble life serves as an example to others.

As I have said before, Longfellow was himself widowed in tragic circumstances, so the passage where we see the smith’s emotions as he listens to his daughter and thinks of his wife is written from a deep personal perspective.


  • Watch Robbin Milne’s performance on YouTube.