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“Be Up and Doing”: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Poetic Labor



In the summer of 1838, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, then the Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, opened his public lectures on “Literature and Literary Life” by stating that he would be considering “Authors as Artists.” Asking that his auditors “Think not that thus I degrade the Poet's high vocation into a base handicraft,” Longfellow explained:

It was with no sarcastic meaning that the Icelanders of old called the Poet a Rhyme-Smith. He is God's workman; and amid the smoke and sparks about him, on his sound anvil forges the broad shield of Truth and weapons of her warfare.

Longfellow offered an analogy between poet and smith which hinged on conscious effort and on the service provided by the tangible products of that labor. Poems were “forged” objects, artifacts consciously produced by “God's workman.” Two years later, in autumn 1840, Longfellow composed “The Village Blacksmith”; the poem concluded:

Thus at the flaming forge of life

Our fortunes must be wrought;

Thus on its sounding anvil shaped

Each burning deed and thought.

By 1840, Longfellow no longer explicitly identified the poet's labor with the active work of the blacksmith. Having witnessed or imagined a blacksmith at work, Longfellow organized his impressions into “The Village Blacksmith,” which presented a particular interpretation of those perceptions – the moral of the poem – for the instruction of its readers. The analogy between the poet and smith turned only on the lesson that the fact of each man's labor could provide to others. The poet was no longer a Rhyme-Smith; instead, he was an instructor who created abstract moral imperatives rather than tangible products.


“Be Up and Doing”: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Poetic Labor



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