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“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of America’s greatest poets. You may know him as the author of “Paul Revere’s Ride”, “The Song of Hiawatha,” and “The Village Blacksmith,” but he penned many other poems, novels and anthologies, as well as translating popular foreign works into English. The most famous of his translations was Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.”

Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807 in Portland, and upon his death was one of the few American poets to be recognized in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. The time in-between these events, as with most poets, was filled with plenty of writing, and quite a bit of tragedy. His first wife, Mary Potter, died suddenly while Longfellow was overseas. After a long and difficult courtship, he married Frances Appleton in 1843 and the couple had six children. “The marriage was an exceptionally happy one for both partners and brought Longfellow the domestic stability he had missed,” writes the Poetry Foundation. However, the bliss was not to last.

Fanny and her children, Charley and Emy.

In 1861, while sealing envelopes with hot wax, a flame caught Frances’ clothes on fire. “Henry had rushed to her aid and tried to smother the flames. But by the time the fire was out, Frances had been burned beyond recovery,” according to the New England Historical Society Longfellow fell into a deep depression after this event and threw himself into his work.Fanny

The beard covered Longfellow’s scars from the burns when he tried to save his wife.

Longfellow was a staunch abolitionist, something that was proudly reflected in some of his writing. So, when the Civil War came, his oldest son, Charley, was eager to do his part. As a Second Lieutenant, Charley fought in the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia, a nd narrowly dodged the Battle of Gettysburg by coming down with typhoid fever.He was back in the fight by August 1863, but Charley’s luck was running out.

Justin Taylor writes that “While dining at home on December 1, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received a telegram that his son had been severely wounded four days earlier. On November 27, 1863, Charley was shot through the left shoulder, with the bullet exiting under his right shoulder blade.” Longfellow’s son survived his injury and was brought home to recover.

Charley Longfellow above

Longfellow found himself staring down another Christmas season as a widower on Christmas Day in 1863, with five children dependent on him and now one child on the brink of death. Outside, he heard the Christmas bells ringing, but I imagine he could also hear the cannons and gunfire of war in his mind. The world was tearing itself apart. There didn’t seem to be much space for peace on earth or goodwill toward men.

And then Longfellow began to write.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

“And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Print depicting a winter scene at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Library of Congress

The theme of listening recurs throughout the poem, eventually leading to a settledness of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair as he recounts to himself that God is alive and righteousness shall prevail. Knowing that Longfellow had hope in God, even in the midst of war and tragedy urges us to choose hope, also.

During this busy season of Christmas and celebrations, stopping to listen can be a respite. In front of the fire is my favorite place. The lights on the tree and the crackle of burning wood settles me in place, and sipping a cup of tea or cider completes this oasis.

If you would like see a snippet of his life and work, here is a short video.

Merry Christmas!


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