‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’: Longfellow’s message of hope

‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’: Longfellow’s message of hope

During the Christmas of 1864, a saddened and reflective poet sat down and began to write the beautiful and immortal words that we sing each Christmas season.

Vintage image of couple separated by the Civil War, c. 1863. (Public domain)

VIENNA, Va., Dec. 7, 2015 — If you talk to musicians and poets around this time of year, they will often volunteer that some of their finest work comes to them after they have experienced a death or a tragedy of some kind. Writing poetry can, at times, actually have an almost cathartic effect on the author.

Daguerreotype of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow c. 1850. (Image via Wikipedia)
Daguerreotype of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow c. 1850 (Image via Wikipedia)

That is certainly the case when we examine one the best-known and most beloved Christmas carols ever associated with an American writer or poet. We’re talking about “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” of course. This still widely read and sung poem—a hymn really—came from the pen of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow  (1807-1882) and was composed on Christmas Day, 1864.

Longfellow has been leading a tortured existence during the last few years before that day. On July 11, 1861, his wife Fanny had clipped some long curls from the head of her 7-year-old daughter, Edith. Wanting to save them in an envelope, she placed the curls inside, then melted a bar of sealing wax with a candle to seal the envelope.

Somehow, the thin fabric of her clothing caught fire, and Fanny quickly ran to Longfellow’s nearby study for help. He immediately tried to extinguish the flames with a small rug, and when that failed, he threw his arms around Fanny to smother the flames, sustaining serious burns on his own face, arms and hands. Tragically, his heroic act did not suffice to save his wife. Fanny died the next morning from injuries. Longfellow himself was injured to the point where he was unable to attend the funeral.

Photographs of Longfellow taken or made after the fire usually show him with a full beard, since he was no longer able to shave properly due to the burns and scarring.

Fanny Appleton Longfellow. (Image via Wikipedia)
Fanny Appleton Longfellow (Image via Wikipedia)

The coming of the holiday season in the Longfellow house became a time of grieving for his wife while trying to provide a happy time for the children left at home. It was during Christmas 1862 that he wrote in his journal, “A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

He had also suffered another disappointment when his oldest son, Charles Appleton “Charley” Longfellow, quietly left their Cambridge, Mass. home, and enlisted in the Union Army much against the wishes of his father.

In mid-March, Longfellow had received word from Charles, saying, “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer.” The determined young man continued, “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”

He was 17 years old and went to Capt. W. H. McCartney, who was in charge of Battery A of the 1st Mass. Artillery, asking to be allowed to enlist. McCartney knew the boy and knew he did not have his father’s permission, so he contacted the senior Longfellow to see if he could obtain it on his behalf. Longfellow granted that permission with foreboding and regret.


Fanny Longfellow, with sons Charles and Ernest, circa 1849. (Image via Wikipedia)
Fanny Longfellow, with sons Charles and Ernest, circa 1849 (Image via Wikipedia)

It was only a few months later that Charley came down with typhoid fever and malaria and was sent home to recover, not rejoining his unit again until August 15, 1863.

Following the battle of Gettysburg, which Charley had fortunately missed, the action made its way back into Virginia. It was at the Battle of New Hope Church in Orange, Virginia—part of the Mine Run Campaign—that the young Lt. Longfellow sustained seriously disabling injuries. He was hit in the shoulder, and the ricocheting bullet took out portions of several vertebrae. It was reported that he missed being paralyzed by less than one inch.  Longfellow traveled to where his injured son was hospitalized and brought him home to Cambridge to recover.

The war for Charley was over.

And so during the Christmas of 1864, a saddened and reflective poet sat down and began to write the beautiful and immortal words that we sing each Christmas:

 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.

I 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.

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.”

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!

Remembering that this was written during the Civil War, even though not published until 1872, we see the concerns of the War were much on Longfellow’s mind and heart. For that reason, two other verses appeared in the original as verses four and five. These are not usually sung today, since they emphasize the poet’s specific feelings about the War:

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!

Longfellow in later years. (Image via Wikipedia)
Longfellow in later years. (Image via Wikipedia)

Longfellow’s heartfelt meditation on loss and hope were eventually published and were well received. John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), an English composer, was similarly affected when he read the poem. It was he who penned the music that we know and sing today, slightly rearranging the verses or stanzas as he worked.

While he was a career organist and a music teacher, Calkin to this day remains best known as the composer of the music to Longfellow’s poem. Verse and lyrics united, transformed into a glorious carol movingly addressing the fact that despite warfare, tragedy and loss, there remains within most of us an abiding hope and desire for “peace on earth, good-will to men!”

A very Merry Christmas season to all of you, good friends and readers. May the coming year be filled with good times, good books, good friends and good health!

And peace on earth.

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