Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Longfellow: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

According to what I've read, Longfellow wrote this poem on Christmas Day 1863 (some say 1864). He had been despondent since the death of his wife in 1861. As she was sealing some of her daughter's curls in an envelope, hot wax dripped on to her dress and a breeze fanned the smolder into a flame. Though he tried, and finally did, extinguish the fire -- and was himself burned in the process -- his wife died the next morning. His gloom was expressed in his diary we such entries as these:

“A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

"How inexpressibly sad are all holidays."

"I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace."

To add to Longfellow's misery, his oldest son Charles joined the Union Army against his father's wishes. Not only that, he was severely injured in the Battle of New Hope Church (Virginia). It is with this background we understand the lines such as "'There is no peace on earth,' I said".

In 1872 the poem was set to music by the English organist John Baptiste Calkin, with a melody he had previously written.

"Christmas Bells"
(The original poem, complete with all seven stanzas)

"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!"

Further reading
The Civil War: beauty from tragedy, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"
The Cross of Snow

No comments: