I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during a particularly low point in his life. His son Charles, without consent, had joined the Union army during the American Civil War and was killed in combat. Around the same time his wife also died in an accidental fire. On Christmas day, 1864, he sat down and penned these words.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild 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!

The carol begins nicely: the bells on Christmas morning remind him of the angels in the Gospels. Peace on earth, good-will to men! Then it takes a dark turn.

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!”

While we can look back and see 1864 as a good year for the Union, for those living during the time victory was not certain. Battles at the Wilderness and the Crater and the siege of Petersburg were bloody, brutal affairs. Coupled with his double-loss, it was no wonder Longfellow despaired. “There is no peace on earth” is a mild sentiment considering the circumstances.

But the carol doesn’t end there:

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.”

This is not mere sentimentality, or a liberal belief in Progress. For Longfellow, the Gospel rings louder than the evil of men. What sin has done to man, Jesus undoes. The canon may boom, but the church bell peals louder.

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One thought on “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

  1. Pingback: The Read and Share File « The Master's Table

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