Past, Present, and Future: “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Holidays. The Season.
The Past.
The Present.
The Future.

Of all the blessings of The Season,” perhaps there is none so great as just taking the opportunity to reflect, to look back at how blessed we have been, how blessed we are, and how, with God’s continued favor, we can look ahead to even more blessing on our lives.

I had planned to share this poem with you before Christmas, but it didn’t work out that way, and, perhaps, it is meant for “such a time as this.” We have all heard the poem, or at least parts of it, even if we have only heard its adapted Christmas Carol version, beginning with, “I heard the bells on Christmas Day …”

The words of the original poem really struck me, and then, after I read about how the poem came to be, with what Mr. Longfellow was personally going through, it added a new level of respect and admiration for the poem, and the man who wrote it. I deeply enjoy being inspired by the stories of people who have overcome great odds, who have persevered during the toughest of times. I intend to share a biographical piece on Longfellow soon, to give more detail on the events of his life.

During all the “Happy” during this Season, please … please … let us not forget those who are facing this time with great sadness and despair. Especially for those who have lost loved ones, this is not the happiest time of year … but, the saddest. For those who are struggling with grief, for those who can’t be with their loved ones (Military Families, for example), this is the toughest of times.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was going through all of these emotions on Christmas morning, 1863, the day which he wrote “Christmas Bells.” Keep in mind that this was 1863. The battle of Gettysburg was only 6 months ago. Christmas during the Civil War was a quiet and solemn time. As soldiers went into winter camp, the nation looked back on a year of bloodshed and forward to a new year with hopes that the conflict would end. The Civil War period was one of the saddest in Longfellow’s life. In July of 1861, his wife Frances (Fannie) had died in a tragic home accident. In March of 1863, Longfellow’s 17-year-old son, Charles, ran away to join the Union army. In June, Charles contracted typhoid fever and malaria, and his father brought him home to recover. He returned to the army in August, missing the Battle of Gettysburg. In November, he was badly wounded during the battle of New Hope Church, Virginia. So, it was while facing the possibility of another loss that Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells.”

On Christmas morning in 1863, while sitting at his desk at the Craigie House in Cambridge, MA, Longfellow was inspired to write a poem as he listened to the church bells pealing. Their constancy and joyous ringing inspired him to write, in spite of his sadness. The poem gracefully captures Longfellow’s anger about the war, and his sense of hopelessness, but also expresses his faith that, in the end, good will can prevail.

“Christmas Bells” was first published in February of 1865, in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine published by Ticknor and Fields. It was not until 1872 that the poem is known to have been set to music, by English organist, John Baptiste Calkin. John Caulkin was a famous English composer who set the lyrics to a gentle, melodic tune which is reminiscent of bells ringing. The carol is entitled “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” You’ll note that, for the Christmas carol, the two verses specifically referencing the war were removed. It has become a favorite Christmas carol both in England and the United States.

So, in reading the lyrics, what struck me the most, and I mean really cried out, was, “Boy … things haven’t changed much, they?” War, hatred, a feeling of national despair … yet, through all this … I can still hear the voice of “… a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men …”

Christmas Bells
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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