I Heard the Bells?

It has been a rough couple of years for all. Person loss, deaths, pandemic confusion, political turmoil, continued racial and ethnic strife. I wonder if we are catching a glimpse of how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow must have felt in 1863. He had lost his wife two years earlier (1861) when her dress accidentally caught fire. Mr. Longfellow tried to save her and severely burned his hands, arms, and face in the process. Sadly, he could not save her, and she died the next day. Mr. Longfellow was burnt so badly he could not attend her funeral.

The Civil War also began in 1861. In 1863, his oldest son joined the Union army even though his father disapproved. Mr. Longfellow discovered his son had left for the army when he found the note his son had written before leaving. On December 1, 1863, Mr. Longfellow received a telegram saying his son had been severely wounded in battle on November 27. He rushed to Washington D.C. where a surgeon told him that “the wound was very serious and paralysis might ensue.” (He did recover without paralysis.)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had experienced unexpected loss of life when his wife passed. His son lay severely wounded in fighting for a cause the family believed. And still, peace seemed a distant shadow. the Civil War with all its racial strife and political turmoil raged. Amidst this chaos, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow heard church bells ringing and began to write…

“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.”

Maybe we need to take a moment this Christmas—a moment of respite in the midst of personal loss, unexpected death, pandemic confusion, overall political turmoil, and continued racial and ethnic strife—to recall and meditate upon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s lament and the Christmas hope it recalls…of “Peace on earth, good-will to men.” 

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