I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

  • Dec. 16, 2015
  • #8773

In spite of experiencing suffering and sorrow, Longfellow writes a poem of hope, peace, and good-will to men.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I’m Joni Eareckson Tada with a little history behind a Christmas favorite.

And the history begins around the time of the Civil War. It was March of 1863, when 18-year-old Charles Longfellow walked out of his family’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and—unbeknownst to his father—boarded a train bound for Washington, DC. Four hundred miles later, he landed in Washington and joined the Union army to fight in the Civil War.

No one knew what Charles had done, and this especially unsettled his father, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the celebrated literary critic and poet. Less than two years earlier, Henry Longfellow had been awakened from a nap by screams from his wife – her dress had caught on fire. Although he tried to extinguish the flames; first with a rug and then with his own body, it was too late. Not only did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lose his wife, but he suffered facial burns so severe that he was unable even to attend his own wife’s funeral. He would grow a beard to hide his burned face and at times feared that he would be sent to an asylum on account of his grief. So you can imagine how shaken and dismayed he was to learn that his oldest son had just up and left to join the Union Army.

His son, Charley (as he was called) enlisted as a private with the 1st Massachusetts Artillery. But soon he was commissioned as Second Lieutenant. After participating on the fringe of the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia, Charley fell ill with typhoid fever and was sent home to recover. After he recovered, he rejoined his unit, having just missed the Battle of Gettysburg. Later that same year, in early December, his father, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, received a telegram that his son had been severely wounded. Charley was shot through the left shoulder, with the bullet exiting under his right shoulder blade. It had traveled across his back and skimmed his spine. Charley avoided being paralyzed by less than an inch. His famous father immediately set out from his home to travel south to be with his son. When he arrived he found his bruised and battered boy, war-torn and weary and suffering terribly from his serious wounds. Nothing could have broken a father’s heart more.

On Christmas day, 1863, Longfellow, a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, hears the Christmas bells and the singing of “peace on earth” but it troubles him. There is so much violence and injustice in the world and that seems to mock the truth of this statement.

And so he wrote:

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.”

© Joni and Friends


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