Under the spreading chestnut tree

A red buckeye, close relative of horsechestnut
A red buckeye, close relative of horsechestnut

Many of us learned the great Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem The Village Blacksmith in school, which begins:

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.

As a forestry student, I learned that this tree was thought to be a horsechestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum,  not an American chestnut, Castanea dentata, though I never knew for sure.

A very good story in the National Geographic by Rebecca Rupp tells us of the history of American chestnut as a food source, and of work under way at SUNY ESF, my alma mater,  to revive the American chestnut through genetic engineering.  This is important work and I am glad to see it covered so well in the National Geographic.  The story begins:

“Perhaps the most quoted line about a chestnut tree in all of American history is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Under the spreading chestnut tree/The village smithy stands” from “The Village Blacksmith.” In 1842, when Longfellow penned his poem, the American chestnut (Castanea dentate) was in its prime.”

a chair
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s chair, made from the horsechestnut that shaded the village smithy. Source: public domain.

That got me to wondering which story was true -was it a horsechestnut or an American chestnut?  I did a little research, and to my astonishment found that Longfellow himself provided the answer. In 1879, a journalist named Ira Emory Forbes wrote Longfellow an impassioned letter pleading with the great poet to relieve him of his anxiety, saying:

“..the poem has always been of so much interest to me that I can not bear to think of my ideal being mutilated, the tree being the horse chestnut, instead of the graceful tree of our woods and hillsides”

Longfellow replied on April 18, 1879 referring both to the tree and to a chair that was made for him from the wood of the “spreading chestnut tree’ when it was cut down.

Dear Sir,

I am sorry to dispel an innocent illusion, but truth forces me to say, that the tree, which over-shadowed the village smithy, and of whose wood the birthday chair is made, was a horse-chestnut.

Yours very truly

Henry W. Longfellow

I think we have to accept the words of the great man himself.  The village smithy lay under the shade of a large horsechestnut.

Source:  The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Here is the entire poem, which is still a marvel:

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 5
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, 10
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 15
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; 20
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And watch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

He goes on Sunday to the church, 25
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. 30

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 35
A tear out of his eyes.

Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close; 40
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 45
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought!