Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Peace On Earth, Goodwill Towards Men

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow didn't know what he contributed to future Christmas hymns and seasons when he composed the words to "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." He recorded it on December 25th, 1864. What later became a Christmas carol was originally his seven-stanza poem "Christmas Bells." At the time, it was a jingoistic war poem, and a fairly tremulous one at that. The following is all off the top of my head, so correct me where I'm wrong.

Two stanzas which had contained direct references to the American Civil War were later omitted in 1872, with those remaining rearranged and set to music
by John Baptiste Calkin. When Longfellow first penned the words, America was a few months away from Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865. While victory was widely expected, it was strewn with offal. His composition took in previous years of the war's despair, presaging a peace during fighting which, percentage-wise, was deadlier than World War One.

It may have looked forward in time, but "I Heard the Bells" was also a deep meditation on personal loss. The beneficent carol we now sing followed the tragic death of Longfellow's wife, Fanny, and a war-wound which paralyzed his eldest son Charles, whom he loved dearly.

Fanny was fatally burned in an accident in their house's library in 1861. She spilled sealing wax on her dress after using it to preserve some of her daughter's trimmed hair, and a sudden gust of wind blew the candle flames after her and ignited the paraffin on her dress. She ran aflame into Henry's study in the next room, and he grabbed a rug and threw it around her to extinguish her burning dress.

The fire had progressed too far, and Longfellow tackled his wife and tried to use his body to snuff the flames. She died the next morning, and his arms, hands and face were severely burned. The glorious beard we see in minds and pictures when we think of Longfellow is because he couldn't shave his burn-scarred face.

Following the death of his wife, he fell into an abyss of depression. A year later, a musket ball passed between the shoulder blades of his son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac. Longfellow wrote nothing in poem or journal in 1863. From his subsequent writings, I believe he closely read the Bible during this period. Just a hunch.

Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am troubled; mine eye is consumed with grief, yea my soul and belly. On Christmas Day of 1864, Longfellow wrote a poem, "Christmas Bells." Against all predictions, Abraham Lincoln had been re-elected. The end of a terrible war was in sight. Lt. Charles Longfellow was disabled from his wounds, but lived. Contrary to popular belief, the Christmas carol was not about his son Charles' death, but his life. I can even hear echoes of scripture: Oh, give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endureth forever (1st Chronicles, 16:34).

Longfellow's Christmas Day bells loudly proclaimed that God is not dead, nor doth he sleep, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail. I will admit my faith is shaken, even deeply, but it endures. We have to work, we have to organize smartly, and we have to win over those who would like to kill. The highest of human achievements is affection to each other, and this is the season. Thank you for coming here and reading every now and again; I have deeply appreciated your attention, I hope it was warranted, and will always return it.

May the wrong fail, the right prevail. Peace on earth, goodwill 2 humans!


A. Peasant said...

You are a treasure.

The resistance begins within each person who refuses to give up hope and who insists that God will deliver those who put their trust in Him. Thank you for being one of those people.

Anonymous said...

Commander Marcos et die Familie,

Feliz Hanakwanzmas.

Ti amico.


Anonymous said...

Hope you guys are having a peaceful housebound Christmas. Dang, it's hard to walk around in this stuff!

When we accepted an invitation to dinner across the street, we didn't suspect that it'd literally be "over the river and through the woods".

MarcLord said...

Lady Peasant,

I can tell you're a sucker for scripture. ;-) This is a really nice story about Longfellow. He never did get over his wife's death, but he regained his productivity, which must have been by an act of determination. Should probably dig the poem up.

MarcLord said...

Hiya Friedrich, same to you wherever you are, and Merry Christmas.

MarcLord said...


River? Good, that means it's still melting. I came back without chains on the car yesterday--quite the challenge! Like driving in Crisco.

Merry Christmas to you and your brideen!

HopeSpringsATurtle said...

The very highest Season's Greetings to Family Lord. May the season warm your hearts and the New Year be prosperous. Thank you for the Wordsworth and its tender sentiment.

MarcLord said...

Hi Hope,

happy returns, and thank you for the prosperous wishes. We are going to need them!