Dana Morris 2001: Christmas Bells
New Bedford, Massachusetts

 

And so we all learned of the horrors of September 11th. It hung in the air as I visited Dublin that December. Irish firefighters collected relief money for their comerades in New York City. I fell upon an older drawing that I had never finished, and a compelling poem of loss at Christmas. The poem Christmas Bells by Longfellow in featured inside this finished 2001 Christmas card.

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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!"

 

"No one has taught us this lesson so compellingly as the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who wrote the poem that was destined to become a uniquely American  Christmas carol. It was written on a wintry Christmas Eve during the Civil War when Longfellow was in his mid-fifties  and already well known as the author of The Village Blacksmith and The Wreck of the Hesperus, although Tales of a Wayside Inn and Paul Revere’s Ride had not yet been  published.

 On that Christmas Eve Longfellow was alone and terribly distracted because his son was in the army and fighting in the Civil War. Responding to a knock on the door the great poet suddenly found himself listening to a messenger from Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, informing Longfellow that his son had been killed in battle.

                Hours later and alone with his thoughts Longfellow heard church bells signaling midnight on Christmas Eve, whereupon   he went to his desk and wrote the following lines:

 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.

 Relieved to find himself able to write despite his sorrow he wrote a second stanza for his little poem, reflecting on how church bells had been encouraging men for centuries:

I thought of how this day had come,
 The belfries of all Christendom
Had rung so long the unbroken song
 Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 But as the midnight bells stopped ringing, leaving Longfellow alone with his sorrow, he became very angry and bitter and wrote a third stanza of bitterness and despair, a verse unlike any other to be found in a Christmas carol:

Then 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."

                Beside himself in loneliness Longfellow turned from his desk and spent the rest of the night in sorrowful reflection, unable to  sleep, until more church bells began ringing with the first rays of daylight, heralding Christmas Day. Longfellow returned to his desk and, remarkably, wrote one more stanza, one of the greatest affirmations of faith in western literature:

Then peeled the bells now 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."

                Years later the poem would be set to music, and a fifth stanza was added about how the world "revolved from night to day," but only the first four stanzas are Longfellow’s. "

 

narrative written by Ralph Heller, senior consulting editor of Nevada Journal @

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