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Christmas Bells 2021

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet, novelist, and professor whose life spanned almost the entire 19th century. For a very long time, I’d believed that he was British. His poems are decidedly of the Romantic school and many are decidedly long, in the tradition of the English Romantic poets.

I am not one to enjoy lengthy lyric poems, especially those filled with mythology and legend. They serve too well to remind me of my ignorance of far too much mythology and legend!

Longfellow did, however, compose one poem that is quite beautiful, even if it is lengthy. This poetry was written on 25 December 1864, during the American Civil War. In 1872, the composer Jean Baptiste Calkin set some of the verses to music, thereby rendering them into lyrics for the song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

I much prefer the poem in its original and sole “voice.” The use of the words sung as lyrics tends to detract, and distract, from the power and meaning of the spoken poesy. An unvarying monotony sets into the phrasing and prescribed rhythm, creating, at least to my ears, a dreary feeling.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Below is the original poem, in its entirety, with the Civil War verses.

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!”