“Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

by Ann Neilson

This exceptional poem, written by Fireside Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863, has helped me through personal adversity this year. As I listen to it this clear Christmas morning, it recalls my experiences of woe—it also moves me so to reflect upon the blessings I have received. With great trials comes great joy, for we learn to become stronger by our transgressions and misfortune.

When Longfellow wrote this iconic poem, he, too, was in despair. 1863 means he was surrounded by the tragedy of the Civil War. However, what truly called him to write this poem was a stirring turn of events, when his son Charley, a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, was struck by a bullet while fighting, sending him ultimately back home with his father and brother, Earnest Longfellow. According to Robert Girard Carroon in his article “The Christmas Carol Soldier,” “They reached Cambridge on December 8 and Charles Appleton Longfellow began the slow process of recovering. As he sat nursing his son and giving thanks for his survival, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the following poem:

“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!” (Source.)

This is also an excellent article, which provides further context of what may also have lead to the penning of Longfellow’s poem, which I feel to be viable in its own right.

Just as Longfellow experienced great loss, yet displayed fortitude when, “…in despair [he] bowed [his] head, / [for] ‘There [was] no peace on earth,” he held true to his faith and reassures both himself and the reader that “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!” Never have I heard such truer words.

I wish you all a very Merry Holiday, whatever you may celebrate. Remember to reach out to your loved ones, whether they be friend or family; and, remember to forgive those who have wronged you, or those whom you have wronged. Today is a day of peace and renewal, and I pray that each and every one of you has a blessed day—or, in the words of Tiny Tim from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “God bless us, every one!”

(On a side note, these are two gorgeous versions of the carol adaptation of Longfellow’s poem. I recommend giving these both a listen if you have the chance, they’re different from each other stylistically and bring something refreshing to the poem. 1) “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”-Casting Crowns, 2) “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”-Jane Monheit.