One of the Christmas season’s most beautiful carols, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” has two surprising things surrounding it. First, it was written by one of America’s best-loved men of letters, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and it was inspired by a specific bloody event which occurred during the Civil War.
Lovers of poetry and American literature will recall Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Children’s Hour” and “Evangeline.” Few readers, however, are aware that the Harvard professor of literature had a younger brother, Samuel, who was a Unitarian minister and a writer of hymns.
The famous Longfellow brothers were born and raised in Portland, Maine. While Henry was publishing his many books and poems, dark clouds gathered in his personal life and, indeed, over all America. In 1861, his wife died a tragic and painful death when her nightdress caught on fire in their home in Cambridge, Mass. That was also the year that Civil War broke out, rending the country apart.
Two years later, Henry’s 17-year-old son, Charley, ran away from home and joined the Union Army. He proved to be an able soldier, brave and popular. Charley saw action at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, but in early June of that year, he fell ill with typhoid fever and malaria.
Charley was sent home to recover. Consequently he missed the Battle of Gettysburg, but by late June, was well enough to return to the field. During the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia, Charley stopped a bullet which penetrated his left shoulder, nicked his spine and very nearly paralyzed him. He was carried off the battlefield into a church and later taken to Washington to recuperate.
On Dec. 1, 1863, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received the news of his son being wounded, Longfellow left Cambridge immediately for Washington where he found Charley well enough to travel. The two returned home together, a journey of a week’s time. Henry sat by his son’s bedside and slowly nursed him back to health.
In 1863, on Christmas Day, Longfellow expressed his feelings in this plaintive carol, which can only be understood against the backdrop of war. The poet feels like dropping his head in despair, but when he hears the Christmas bells, their triumphant peeling reminds him of the scripture found in Psalms: 12:14, ‘Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber or sleep.”
As a result of this painful personal experience, Longfellow penned the poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which became a carol set to music by Jean Baptiste Calkin. That year, at Samuel Longfellow’s Unitarian Church of the Disciples in Boston, the Sunday school children sang the carol for the first time.
Two stanzas, now omitted from most hymnals, speak of the cannon’s thundering in the south and of hatred tearing apart “the hearth-stones of a continent.”
*I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat, of peace on earth, goodwill to man.
*And thought, how as the day has come, the belfries of all Christendom had rolled along thundering broken song, of peace on earth, goodwill 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, goodwill 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, goodwill to men.
*Then ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day. A voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
The carol has spoken to our hearts throughout the decades. The sentiment today is relevant and stronger than ever. Also, the renewal of hope is there to be found in the last stanza. Would that there could be peace on earth and goodwill toward all men.