“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
By the mid-1800s, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a household name, and his poems, like “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and “The Song of Hiawatha” were memorized and quoted all over America.
But in 1863, it had been many years since he’d written an original verse. Longfellow was weary after years of hardship. His beloved wife had died in a tragic fire, causing him to fall into a deep depression. That Christmas, he wrote in his journal: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”
A few years later, despite his deep conviction against violence, his oldest son, Charley, left this note in his house after stealing away to join the Union Army: “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer.”
Less than a year later, on December 1, 1863, Longfellow received a telegram that every parent during wartime dreaded: Charley had been injured in a skirmish with Confederate troops and was currently in a Virginia hospital. Knowing the poor conditions of battlefront medical stations, Longfellow immediately left his Boston home to search for his son.
After arriving, he spent three days searching the incoming wounded arriving at the train station, passing up and down the line of bleeding, bandaged men, limp on pallets packed into boxcars, until he finally saw a familiar face: Charley, the prodigal son, alive, but barely breathing.
After being rushed to medical care and stabilized, Charley was eventually allowed to return home to Boston. On Christmas Day, with his son still shivering with fever, possibly never to recover, Longfellow struggled with the terrible reality of the war that had torn his country apart… and began to write a poem.
With each line, he built a picture of darkness—and in the midst of it, hope.
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.”
Charley did eventually recover, and he and his father were reconciled, but this wartime Christmas poem-turned-song still rings out a story of the triumph of hope over despair even today.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Aaron Burden