Saturday, December 19, 2020

Poetry Spot: Christmas Bells

At a time when some pundits have raised the possibility of a civil war in the current unrest and divide in the US, it is hard to imagine the sheer horror and sadness of when the US did engage in a civil war in the years 1861-1865. Approximately 620 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease during the Civil War, according to an 1889 study. A recent study puts the number of dead as high as 850,000. In comparison, roughly 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in the nation's wars--620,000 in the Civil War and 644,000 in all other conflicts. It was only as recently as the Vietnam War that the number of American deaths in foreign wars eclipsed the number who died in the Civil War. When civilian deaths are factored in, the total number of deaths has been projected at over 1 million.  So what would someone be thinking at Christmas in the midst of that war, with the future uncertain and misery everywhere?

"Christmas Bells" is an 1863 poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that was later turned into a Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The poem and the song tell of the narrator's despair, upon hearing Christmas bells during the American Civil War, that "hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men". The poem concludes with the bells carrying renewed hope for peace among men. 

Henry Wordsworth Longfellow 


In 1861, two years before writing this poem, Longfellow's second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was fatally burned in an accidental fire. Then in 1862, during the American Civil War, Longfellow's oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union Army without his father's blessing. 

Charley Longfellow (left) and his friend D.H.L. Gleason, October 1863 

Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left. "I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer", he wrote. "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." Charles was soon appointed as a lieutenant but, in November, he was severely wounded in the Battle of Mine Run. 

Charles was shot through the left shoulder. The bullet travelled across his back, nicked his spine, and exited under his right shoulder. He missed being paralysed by less than an inch (2.5cm). 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his younger son, Ernest, brought Charles home, reaching there on December 8, 1863. As he sat nursing his son and giving thanks for his survival, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the poem below. Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished. 

Christmas Bells 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) 
Christmas 1863 

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 !" 


A comment on the ending, from the website Poem Analysis at: 

Verse Seven 

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!” 

The conclusion of ‘Christmas Bells’ is, appropriately, marked by Christmas bells, which are ringing their same song of Christmas joy. The speaker, wrapped up in their despair, imagines that those bells are speaking a kind of reply; they say that in the end, peace and goodwill will prevail over war and despair, and that God continues to watch over the world. It is designed an opposite to the verse that precedes it and concludes the poem on a hopeful — and familiar — note. 

And yet, it is a fairly inconclusive ending to the story. We see the character that narrates the poem declare that there is no peace in the world, and then the Christmas song responds that even if that is true, there one day will be peace again. There is no moment where the speaker changes their mind or rejects the response they’ve been given; the poem simply ends mid-debate. 

At the time ‘Christmas Bells’ was written, the outcome of the American Civil War was not yet known. Whether or not there would be peace and goodwill in the United States was a question without answer, and would have weighed heavily on the minds of a great many people. For Longfellow, peace was what was most important, and his poem strongly reflects that feeling — but he doesn’t know that it will, in time, come. So he ended his work inconclusively, but hopefully, because it was the outcome he most desired, the conclusion he wanted to see both in his poetry and in the real world. It is hardly surprising that this poem caught on, because it was more than likely capable of reflecting the sentiments of many who thought the same way, but could do nothing more than wait and pray for goodwill and peace to return to their world. 

By the way: 

Charles's wound took considerable time to heal. Over a month after returning home, he still needed help getting dressed. He was impatient to get back to his unit and the war, but that would not come to pass. Much to his surprise, Charles was honourably discharged on February 15, 1864 “on account of physical disability”. He made some noise about returning to the army, possibly even as an enlisted man if he could not secure another commission, but ultimately he became accustomed to the idea of being a civilian once again. 

Charley kept in touch with friends made during his brief career as a soldier, receiving letters and photographs from them and creating a scrapbook of newspaper articles relating to his unit’s role in the war. Although he never achieved the martial glory he dreamt of, by all accounts he had been a competent soldier and had more than a bit of luck to come home in one piece after suffering from a potentially fatal disease and a bullet wound that came within a hair’s-breadth of killing him. 

Late in 1864, Charley sailed to Europe and entered a new phase of his life, that of a world traveller. He spent his remaining years visiting far-flung corners of the globe, including India, Japan, South America and the South Pacific. He passed away in the family home on Brattle Street in 1893 after a lengthy illness. 

Charles Longfellow, 1864

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