Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Bells, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Dear readers,
    I'm doing an extra post this month because Christmas is the gift-giving winter holiday that I celebrate, and I wanted to celebrate it here at Cambridge Considered. Merry Christmas.

Christmas Bells

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

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."

The story goes that Longfellow poured this poem onto the page on Christmas morning, as the bells he described were still ringing out. He lived in the former Tory Row on Brattle Street, at the historic manor sometimes known as the Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow house. There were two nearby churches, Christ Church and First Parish Unitarian Church, so he could hear two sets of bells from his home. The 1863 poem is a Christmas favorite for many.

In the fourth, fifth, and sixth stanzas of the poem, Longfellow alludes to the Civil War, which had been going on for over two and a half years at that point. The Battle of Gettysburg, which was the bloodiest of the war, had taken place that July, and Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address in November. Longfellow was a pacifist, and his son Charles had just run away to join the Army of the Potomac (part of the Union army) earlier that year, which undoubtedly made the subject of war even more heart-wrenching for him.1 Many readers also connect the despondent verses to Longfellow's grief at having lost his wife, Fanny, two years before, in a fire in their home. 2

The repeated line, “peace on earth, good-will to men” is from Luke 2:14. Another famous use of this line is from a century before, in Handel's Messiah.3 Both uses emphasize peace and goodwill on earth. Some other translations interpret the passage to mean there will be peace on earth for those who have goodwill with god. Longfellow was a liberal Christian,4 so it is fitting that he was familiar with the more universal phrasing, which does not put limits on peace. In the poem, the Christmas bells sing out those words: “peace on earth, good-will to men.” While a look at the context of the poem and at the Civil War stanzas shows the doubts and fears on Longfellow's mind, “Christmas Bells” is without a doubt a message of faith, hope, and peace.

1Website of the Longfellow National Historic Site, accessed 12/20/2010
2 Gartner, Matthew. “America's Longfellow.” Accessed 12/20/2010
3G.F. Handel, “The Messiah.” Movement 17.
4His brother insisted that he was a devoted Christian but did not belong to a denomination, while his daughter stated that he was a Unitarian Christian his whole life. See “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” Accessed 12/20/2010.

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