Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas day 1863


Staff member
On Christmas Day in 1863 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow continued to grieve the death of his beloved second wife Fannie who had died two years prior when her housedress caught fire. Longfellow himself tried to extinguish those flames with his own body but Fannie did not survive the accident. During the subsequent two years Henry's oldest son would enlist in the Union army to fight in the Civil War. On December 1 of that year, Henry would receive a telegram that his son had been shot during a battle of the Mine Run campaign. The location of the exit wound from the bullet would put his son at risk of being paralyzed.
This father of six, now widowed, worried for the future of his children, all while cannons thundered in the south, captured his feelings as he heard the bells that Christmas day in his poem titled, 'Christmas Bells'. Yesterday as we sang this poem (now song) in our church congregation, I felt as though I could relate a little more to Longfellow and his feelings of despair that were overcome with hope by what he chose to listen to. He chose amidst the grief, amidst the cannons, amidst the fighting and hate to listen to the bells of hope. Those bells would breathe peace into his life just as they have into mine.
I include below the words to the entire poem with verses that are not included in the song. They paint the beautiful picture of a man who found his hope as he bowed his head and listened more intently to his maker. "Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor doth He sleep!"
I know that bowing our heads is the first step toward hope and peace in our lives.
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."


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