The Near Drowning of the Bells

You’ve heard the song. You have probably sung it. But do you know the story?

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!

Originally a poem, later set to music, it was simply entitled, “The Bells.” Remember who wrote it? Yes, the American bard of the 19th century, poet and professor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  He is the author of such epic poems as”Evangeline,” “Song of Hiawatha,” and “The Courtship of Miles Standish, ” as well as “Paul Revere’s Ride.”  This rather short poem brings Longfellow’s own life into his lines.

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!

When did he write these words? And why? The next two verses,  usually left out of our Christmas carol books, offers some clues.

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!

What major event was Longfellow referencing?  “The cannon thundered in the South… the carols drowned… forlorn the households…. Certainly, the Civil War. Ah.  This begins to explain Longfellow’s melancholy:                                                                                                                         

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!”

 But wait.  How is Henry personally touched and changed?  War touches families. Longfellow was born the same year as Robert E. Lee and two years before Lincoln was born.  By the time the Civil War rolled around, Longfellow had packed into his heart a weight of life experience. Married twice, he had lost both wives.  Traveling with her husband in Europe in 1835, Mary died several weeks after a miscarriage. Young, adventurous, and ambitious Longfellow experienced his first heart-rending blow.  The world revolved from day to night for Henry.  And he emerged a richer soul.

Years later, he married Francis Appleton, and they had six children, five reaching adulthood. But while the children were still home, another earth shattering blow crashed in on this close knit family. In a freak accident in 1861, Fanny caught herself on fire while she was melting some sealing wax.  Henry tried to extinguish the flames, causing burns on his face and arm, but his efforts did not save his beloved Fanny. She died the next day. Henry was never the same. Suffering  mocked their song.

The war commenced that year, and two years later, Henry’s oldest child, 17 year old Charles, enlisted in the service.  By the end of the year, Charley was home recovering from serious wounds (shot in the back, close to the spinal chord, and the bullet exited his right shoulder). Charlie was alive, but for how long? What kind of recovery was possible for his son?* On Christmas Day of 1863, Henry sits at his table and pens these words: “I heard the bells on Christmas day. . .”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, now 57 years old, has lived long enough to experience life’s adventures, joys, and deep sorrows. His fame as a poet and professor of languages has brought him much reward. His home life brought him life’s greatest satisfactions and deepest wounds.  Experiential knowledge trumped his academic accolades.

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!”

 What motivated Longfellow not to end with despair? Simply his Romantic leanings? Doubtfully. Deep within him was an anchor that withstood the earthquakes. Deep within was a knowing — a knowing in his knower — not to be extinguished.  A faith, a hope not in faith or hope, but as Henry said:

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 wars of the 20th century have come and gone, horrifically overshadowing the traumas of the Civil War. Almost fourteen years into the 21st century, the industry of war has nearly overpowered mankind, but then, no. There is a restraining Power.

Each individual, each family experiences “wars and rumors of wars” that have the potential to overpower, to destroy through despair. And at this Christmas season, we may do well to take some time, as Henry did, to sit and reflect on the specific realities of our lives. Sorting through them (note my last post), despair can be overruled by a firm conviction that “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!”  God’s kindnesses and blessings are proof. The bells we hear represent life’s heartbeat. Ah, I’m alive! Therefore, I’m grateful for breath.

I hear the bells on Christmas Day . . .  Peace on earth. Never lose heart. Good-will toward each of you.

* Read more:; Charley’s story: . Charley did recover, was honorably discharged, and lived 30 more adventurous years, dying at a relatively young age to us — around age 47.

Categories: Joy & Suffering -- Good & Evil, Spiritual Growth | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “The Near Drowning of the Bells

  1. Good job with your research for this piece. Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year to you and Paul.

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