Then pealed the bells more loud and deep…

Christmas Day, 1864. The United States is in the last throes of the Civil War, with Lee’s surrender to Grant still a few months away, and winter bearing heavily on Massachusettes. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sat in his study and wrote the words that eventually became a carol known as “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.”

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!

But this was not intended as a Christmas carol. In fact, it was a brilliant and telling moment of faith for Longfellow. He sat in his study in some degree of despair: his wife two years gone, his son recently maimed in the war, his spirit all but broken.

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!”

And then he heard the bells… those sweet, pealing bells that struck a deeper chord that resonated within him. And in that moment, his faith and spirit were renewed.

Tom Stewart describes the scene:

“Tragedy struck both the nation and the Longfellow family in 1861. Confederate Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard fired the opening salvos of the American Civil War on April 12th, and Fanny Longfellow was fatally burned in an accident in the library of Craigie House on July 10th.

“The day before the accident, Fanny Longfellow recorded in her journal: “We are all sighing for the good sea breeze instead of this stifling land one filled with dust. Poor Allegra is very droopy with heat, and Edie has to get her hair in a net to free her neck from the weight.”

“After trimming some of seven year old Edith’s beautiful curls, Fanny decided to preserve the clippings in sealing wax. Melting a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few drops fell unnoticed upon her dress. The longed for sea breeze gusted through the window, igniting the light material of Fanny’s dress– immediately wrapping her in flames. In her attempt to protect Edith and Allegra, she ran to Henry’s study in the next room, where Henry frantically attempted to extinguish the flames with a nearby, but undersized throw rug.

“Failing to stop the fire with the rug, he tried to smother the flames by throwing his arms around Frances– severely burning his face, arms, and hands. Fanny Longfellow died the next morning. Too ill from his burns and grief, Henry did not attend her funeral.

“The first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the incident, he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

“Almost a year later, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and taking off one of the spinal processes. The Christmas of 1863 was silent in Longfellow’s journal.

“God’s Truth, Power, and Justice are affirmed, when Longfellow wrote: “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” The message that the Living God is a God of Peace is proclaimed in the close of the carol: “Of peace on Earth, good will to men.””

Then, Christmas Day, 1864: Longfellow, sitting in his study, hears the bells ringing again. At first, he is struck by the same despair and grief that have been weighing on him for the past few years. “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep…” And, in that moment, Longfellow found the peace he had been seeking; he felt the spirit of God renew him; he felt the hope that the nation would soon be healed.

“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.”

Christmas Bells
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
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.”

2 Comments

  1. Very nice history on this lovely carol. Thank you for sharing! I posted a link to this log entry on my own blog. Hope you don’t mind.You can read it here:http://blog.myspace.com/randomponderingsBlessings to you,-Sparklinghttp://www.visionsgame.com

  2. I loved this piece about Longfellow. If you ever get a chance to visit his house in Cambridge, it will be thrill for you and your wife and your kids.The guides there bring the Longfellows to life.You have a lovely family. Kathleenhttp://www.kathleenbell.com

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