“I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day…”

So begins a poem, a lament really, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

To us Longfellow is a guy we read in a textbook in high school. I don’t even know if they read him anymore. But Henry Longfellow was a flesh and blood man, a man who suffered tragedy as so many do. But his unique gift allowed him to express in such a memorable way.

What Longfellow composed was a lament. A lament for all that was wrong with the world and Longfellow was well acquainted with that.

It was the Civil War and tragedy and loss were the order of the day. Longfellow would not be immune. Hostilities in the war had just broken out and Longfellow had just lost his wife. She did not die in the war but in an equally tragic and horrible way. Frances, a good mother, was sealing envelopes with locks of her children’s hair as keepsakes. She was sealing the envelopes with wax from a hot candle. Nobody really knows how, but she accidentally set herself on fire. Henry put out the flames but it was too late. She lingered through the night, but perished the next day. Such a loss would be hard on anyone.

Not too long after this, his son, afraid of telling his father in person for fear he would stop him, informed his father by letter that he had joined the Union army. Longfellow was devastated. Within months Henry got word that his beloved son had been very badly wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church.

To Longfellow the world seemed almost bereft of hope. Almost. On Christmas day 1864, he sat down and composed “Christmas Bells.” In it he showed that even in our darkest hour, the light of Christ continues to shine. There is always hope.

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.

I 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.

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.”

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!

There is always hope.

This poem has been put to music many times and there are some splendid versions of it including the oddly upbeat version by Bing. The version below captures some of the feeling Longfellow felt when he wrote it. Peace on Earth, good will to men!

ht Amy E. Ekblad