My mother, who says this proverb has a lot of significance for her as an adult, learned it from her father, who was a strict man with a tough work ethic and a Latin scholar. My mom’s family immigrated to the United States from Dominica when she was a kid and they were able to do so, because her father had saved up enough money to be deemed self-sufficient by US immigration. The meaning of this proverb is about timing, preparation, patience, thinking strategically and taking the right opportunities. When you are the anvil, you have to take the blow, because that is the position you are in. Basically, sometimes you have to pay your dues early on in order to be in a position to reap the reward later. Moving through life smartly means not striving for instant gratification. You have to wait, plan, and work hard for opportunities that may come in the future. Essentially, you must put yourself in a position to strike, so you are able to take opportunities when they manifest for you.
1. This was official quoted by Edwin Markham.
Translations from other languages:
2. If thou art an anvil then suffer: if a hammer, then strike. Romanian
3. If you are an anvil be patient; if you are a hammer strike hard. German
4. It is better to be the hammer than the anvil. French