Monday, December 19, 2011

A Carol Born


When it comes to carols, I have always found “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” to be especially poignant (if you're not familiar with it, you can listen to it here.)

It did not begin as a song, but as a poem written on Christmas morning 1863 by America’s greatest poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. At that moment in time America was torn apart and battling itself in the Civil War – a war that still stands as the one in which more Americans died than in any other.

When dawn broke that morning, Longfellow was despondent. During the war his son Charles had been horrifically wounded when a bullet passed through part of his spine, leading to a long and excruciating recovery. And as if that wasn’t dark enough, his wife Frances had died as a result of burns sustained when her clothes were set on fire by dripping sealing wax, which she was melting with the intention of using it to preserve some of their daughter’s trimmed curls.

But despite that sorrowful backdrop, as Longfellow sat in his Massachusetts home on Christmas and heard the ringing of local church bells, his faith in divine promise started to stir and he was moved to put pen to paper. The resulting poem was transformed into a hymn nine years later, when John Baptiste Calkin composed the music to which it was set.

The poem’s words absolutely speak for themselves. Since some of them are excluded from the carol we normally hear this time of year, here they are in their entirety:

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.”

2 comments:

Betsy from Tennessee said...

That is a favorite of mine also, John. However, I did not know the history behind the words... That makes the carol even more special. Thanks!!!!

In doing Genealogy on my ancestors, I have read some horrible stories about what the Civil War did to my Virginia ancestors... The young men all went to fight ---and the women stayed at home. So few of the men returned. Just very sad...

Merry Christmas.
Betsy

Fred Alton said...

It is sad to reflect on "civil war" but great to hear the sound of the old church bell, telling the world that Jesus lives and God still loves the world. May you and your family sense the peace of God during this yuletide season.