Category Archives: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Christmas Bells

ChristmasBellsDec2015       For some reason this year I’ve read more than one time the back story concerning the poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” written by American poet/author, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in December 1863.  The story behind the writing of this poem is that Longfellow had been in a prolonged depression when he wrote it.  What precipitated his depression was his beloved wife, Fanny, had died in tragic circumstances in summer 1861 (her dress caught fire, and unable to remove it, she died from the burns).  In the years and months leading up to Fanny’s death Henry and Fanny had been married for 18 years, living happily in Boston and had five children ranging in ages from 5 – 17.  Fanny was not only a devoted wife and mother, she was a close confidant of Longfellow’s, sharing many of his literary and cultural interests as well.  After Fanny’s unexpected death, Henry was in a funk for months and unable to compose anything other than brief written correspondence to family and friends.

Two years later, to compound his sorrow, Longfellow’s eldest son, Charles, who had gone off to fight in the Civil War, was badly injured in a battle in late November 1863.  When the war began in 1861, both Henry and Fanny had hoped their son wouldn’t join the Union army and fight, and yet this was something that Henry was not able to prevent.

One of the compelling aspects of this poem “I Hear the Bells on Christmas Day” written on Christmas 1863 is in it Longfellow’s bleak outlook takes a turn eventually toward hope.  Additionally this poem went on to become a well-known Christmas song after being set to music in 1872 by British composer, John Baptiste Calkin.

Christmas Bells

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!”

–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882)