Monday, December 25, 2006

Hearing Longfellow's Christmas Bells

On Christmas Day 1863, as the American Civil War raged, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned a poem destined to morph into one of our most beloved Christmas carols. The poem was originally entitled, "Christmas Bells". It was re-arranged (most modern hymnals exclude two of the seven verses that specifically pertain to the war), and set to music by John Baptiste Calkin in 1872.

The following is a brief recounting of the story and tragedy behind "I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day".

In the summer of 1861 (the same year "the war of Northern Aggression" began) Longfellow's second wife, Fanny died in a freakish fire. It had been a very hot summer, and she had been attempting to seal an envelope containing the recently shorn curls of the couple's young daughter, Edith. Burning wax fell on . . . and ignited . . . her cotton dress. She ran away from the children (to protect them) and straight to her beloved husband. Ironically, the rush of a cool summer breeze that she had longed for only the day before fueled the fire, completely engulfing Fanny Longfellow in flames. Longfellow himself was severely burned trying to extinguish the fire with a too-small throw rug. Fanny passed away the next day.

Longfellow was inconsolable. The first Christmas after Fanny's death, the following entry was made in his journal: "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." A year after that, he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace . . . A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."

More dark days were to come. Longfellow's son, Charles, a lieutenant in the Union Army suffered a crippling injury on the battlefield in late 1863. Longfellow penned "The Christmas Bells" during his son's long convalescence.

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!"

God is not dead. He does not sleep. Wrong shall fail. Right shall prevail. Peace on earth is gonna happen.

When you take the time to listen to those lyrics, it's pretty powerful stuff. And who among us has not had at least one crappy Christmas . . . when we needed a message like that . . . when we really needed to hear those bells?

I am a huge fan of the "Touched by an Angel" series, now gone from CBS. I used to call it "my angel show" and nothing short of a life-threatening emergency could peel me away from my spot in front of the TV at 8 o'clock on Sunday night. In one fourth season episode, the angels actually used Longfellow's poem and the carol to teach a curmudgeonly and despondent Mark Twain ("Sam" to "angel-girl" Monica) a lesson or two.

The message of Longfellow's "Christmas Bells" . . . of hope and goodwill in the face of war and despair still rings true today.

There are two Longfellow quotes I like, and it seems a good time to share:

"If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."

And . . .

"Perserverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody."

One can only hope:)

Happy Christmas 2006.


bubba said...

Interesting, Mary.

There are three of us locally (you, Doug Clark, and me) who chose to use Longfellow's work as a Christmas message on our blogs, all independent of each other.

It speaks well to the message of this particular season.

Dr. Mary Johnson said...

Yes it does.

I hope you have a very Merry Christmas, my friend.