Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Poem for Hill Country: CHRISTMAS BELLS by Longfellow

by Terry Thornton

The following blog article was published December 20, 2007, as part for the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories. The suggested topic for that day was Christmas and Deceased Relatives: Did your family visit the cemetery at Christmas? How did your family honor deceased family members at Christmas? Here is what I wrote --- the article is # 316 in Terry Thornton's Hill Country of Monroe County Mississippi, Volume 1 CD.

Christmas is such a trying time that I don't take on the additional burden of making a trek to the cemetery to remember dead relatives. With all of the attention for nostalgia and idealizations, often come the blues and depression and deep melancholy. Going to the cemetery at this time is not a part of my Christmas celebration.

So what shall I write about? First, let me define some of the terms I used above. From my trusty old American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, I copied the following definitions.

  • Nostalgia: A longing for things, persons, or situations that are not present. Homesickness.
  • Idealize: To regard as ideal; hold in high esteem. To make or envision as ideal.
  • Ideal: A conception of something in its absolute perfection.
  • Blues: A state of depression or melancholy.
  • Depressed: In low spirits; dejected.
  • Melancholy: Sadness or depression of the spirits; gloom.

One of America's finest poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote a poem that, to me, incorporates most of the emotions from the above list of definitions. Longfellow lost two spouses --- the first, Mary, died early in their marriage after having a miscarriage in 1835, and the second, his beloved Fanny, died in a tragic fire in 1861. She was using candle wax to seal an envelope when her clothing caught fire. Longfellow was badly burned trying to extinguish Fanny's dress --- her injuries resulted in her death. Longfellow is said to have carried the physical scars of that fire on his hands, arms, and face for the rest of his life. His emotional pain is apparent in much of his writing after 1861. Longfellow died in 1882 and is buried with both Mary and Fanny in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Longfellow poem [printed below] was written in 1864; his melancholy was made worse by the Civil War raging between the United States and the Confederates. Parts of the poem have been arranged into a most popular Christmas hymn, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Some of the lines written by Longfellow are omitted in the hymn version of his poem, Christmas Bells.

I think the lines "And in my despair I blowed 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'" are among some of the more powerful and emotional of poetry lines from an American poet.

And then Longfellow hears the bells deep and loud and concludes, "God is not dead; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Most of you probably are singing the Christmas carol by now --- the concluding line from Luke 2:14 is one of my favorites. But read the entire poem below --- and then some more about its history.


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!"

Hymn set to music by John B. Calkin in 1872.

Poem written by Longfellow in 1864.

You may wish to hear the 1872 Calkin version of this old hymn as you read. Click for a midi file --- sing along if you wish --- and reflect upon Luke 2: 13-14: And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Yes, one of my favorite Christmas songs is I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook states that the words to the song are attributed to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the music attributed to Johnny Marks. In some of the comments to the song are these words:

"A mood of intense melancholy overtook poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the years after his wife's tragic death in a fire in 1861. The Civil War had broken out that same year, and it seemed to him that this was an additional punishment. Sitting down at his desk one day, he penned the poem 'Christmas Bells.' As the bells continue to peal and peal, Longfellow recognizes that God is not dead after all, that right shall prevail, bringing peace and goodwill, as long as there is Christmas and its promise of new life. The poem has been sung to a tune written in the 1870s by an English organist,John Baptiste Calkin. In the 1950s, Johnny Marks, whose Christmas songs are many and choice, adapted Longfellow's words and provided the modern musical setting that is used here and is commonly sung today."

And my Christmas wish is " . . .on earth peace, good will toward men."


American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, edited by William Morris. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969.

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and music by Johnny Marks. Merry Christmas Songbook. Edited by William L. Simon. Pleasantville, New York: The Reader's Digest Association, 1981. Pages 150 -55.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. "Christmas Bells." The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Cambridge Edition, Edited by Horace E. Scudder.Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1903. Pages 289-90. Available at Google Full-view Books; accessed December 11, 2007.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Wikipedia. The article at Wiki offers a quick over-view of the life and works of Longfellow. Note also the tragedies in his life with the death of Mary, his first wife after a miscarriage, and Fanny, his second wife, in a horrible fire accident.

Stewart, Tom. The Story Behind "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." December 20, 2001. Accessed December 11, 2007.

Copyright © 2007 William T. "Terry" Thornton. Fulton, Mississippi 38843. All Rights Reserved.


Dorene from Ohio said...

Very interesting history!

Heather Rojo said...

Very nice story. I used to walk by the Longfellow house a lot during undergrad days in Harvard Square. I always thought of two poem when I walked by, "Christmas Bells" and "The Children's Hour" because my dad would recite them by heart to us when we were kids.

Terry Thornton said...

Thanks Dorene and Heather.

Heather I hope you still have someone to recite "Between the dark and the daylight When the night is beginning to lower, Comes a pause in the days occupations, That is known as the Children's Hour. . ."

Children's Hour is indeed a good poem --- thanks for mentioning it so I could have the pleasure of that first stanza again.

Terry Thornton
Fulton, Mississippi