“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

What do you do when your wife has died tragically in a fire, your eldest son has run off and joined the war and, after typhoid, malaria, and a potentially paralyzing shot, you bring him home to recuperate? I would probably be yelling and hollering, but Longfellow wrote poetry. (Much better use of energy, that.)

President Bush quoted the poet recently. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, though he didn’t say, and the poem was what became the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” I missed Bush’s reference, but Glenn Beck discussed it and I heard that. The story behind the poem/song is incredible.

First, the words, from Hymns and Carols of Christmas.

1. 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.

2. I 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.

3. 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.’

4. 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.’

5. 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.

And, from The Loyal Legion the story of the Christmas Carol Soldier.

Just one part says,

Charles Longfellow turned out to be a natural soldier. He grasped the elements of drill, camp, and military life with amazing aptitude. He became a great favorite with his fellow artillerymen and showed decided leadership skills, which commended him to his superior officers.

In the meantime his father, thinking that his son might do better as an officer rather than a rough hewn enlisted man and began to contact friends, such as Senator Charles Sumner, Governor John Andrew and Dr. Edward B. Dalton, medical inspector of the Sixth Army Corps, with a view to obtaining a commission for his son. As he started to engage in this process of string pulling, Mr. Longfellow was surprised to hear that all his machinations were unnecessary-on his own merits Charley was offered a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, and had accepted. He was commissioned on March 27, 1863.

Charley entered on his new duties with enthusiasm and was assigned to Company “G” of the 1st Massachusetts. His first action came on the fringes of the Battle of Chancellorsville. In early June Charley came down with typhoid fever and malaria and was invalided home to recover.

After recuperating Charley rejoined his unit on August 15, 1863, having missed the Battle of Gettysburg. In mid-September he was in a fight at Culpepper where quartermaster sergeant Read, who was standing next to Charley had his leg taken off by artillery round.

On November 27, as part of the Mine Run Campaign, while in a skirmish during the battle of New Hope Church, Virginia, Charley was shot through the left shoulder. The bullet traveled across his back, nicked his spine, and exited under his right shoulder. He missed being paralyzed by less than an inch. He was carried into the church and then by ambulance to the Rapidan River.

On December 1, 1863, word was received at the Longfellow home in Cambridge of Charles serious injury. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his younger son, Ernest, left at once for Washington, D.C. where they finally met up with Charley and brought him home. 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 poem].

I did break ujp the story to make it more easily read. In the original this is a single paragraph. The other paragraphs, though, are shorter.

What a wonderful legacy, to have the story of faith and questioning preserved for generations to come in a Christmas carol.

Update: Apparently William Studwell in his book The Christmas Carol Reader says that the work is an anti-war song. I think he’s not reading the poem as Longfellow wrote it. Longfellow wrote that the bells rang, he was disillusioned and asked, “What’s the use?” and the bells answered him, “God is not dead nor doth he sleep,/The wrong shall fail, the right prevail/with peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

1 thought on ““I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

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