One sweet memory of Christmases past comes from my college days at Oregon State. I can remember each December walking across the commons in front of the Memorial Union Building listening to the sound of bells ringing out Christmas Carols. We don’t often hear Christmas bells in Anchorage. I have occasionally heard them ringing in other cities when I have travelled in December around Christmas time, and whenever I hear them I think of Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells” which later became a carol itself, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one of America’s best known poets. Born in 1807 in Portland, Maine (then part of Massachusetts) Wadsworth wrote many famous poems, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, “The Song of Hiawatha”, and “Evangeline.” But, his poem “Christmas Bells” touches me the most because of what it reveals about Longfellow’s heart.
Wadsworth’s father was a lawyer, but he became an educator who loved writing. Educated at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Longfellow met there Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables) who became his lifelong friend. After completing his education, Hawthorne was hired by his alma mater and then later served as a Professor at Harvard.
Longfellow’s life was marked by tragedies. His first wife Mary died shortly after suffering a miscarriage during their travels together through Europe in 1835. Mary’s death hit Longfellow hard – he wrote "One thought occupies me night and day... She is dead. She is dead! All day I am weary and sad". Eventually Longfellow remarried to Frances (Fanny) Appleton. Fanny captured Longfellow’s heart almost immediately, but he had to court her for seven long years before he captured her heart – in 1839 he wrote to a friend “"[V]ictory hangs doubtful. The lady says she will not! I say she shall! It is not pride, but the madness of passion".
Longfellow and Fanny married and together they had six children. Longfellow’s love for Fanny remained great and did not diminish, as is evident in the following lines from Longfellow's only love poem, the sonnet "The Evening Star" written in 1845: "O my beloved, my sweet Hesperus! My morning and my evening star of love!" After he once attended a ball without Fanny, he wrote "The lights seemed dimmer, the music sadder, the flowers fewer, and the women less fair."
But tragedy struck Longfellow’s life once again in 1861. Confederate Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard fired the opening salvos of the American Civil War in April, and then Fanny was fatally burned in an accident in July. Longfellow’s son Charles enlisted in the Union Army and later suffered crippling war wounds. Longfellow’s heart remained very heavy thereafter. The first Christmas after Fanny's death, he wrote, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." A year after the incident, he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace."
It was in the midst of this heavy heartedness that Longfellow wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on December 25, 1864. Unknown to Longfellow of course, that Christmas was just months before the end of the Civil War with Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomatox. All that Longfellow knew at the time was that the War had dredged on for more than three long years and that it had taken a heavy toll.
But, after walking that Christmas Day in 1864 and hearing the Christmas Bells, Longfellow wrote:
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.
I thought how as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had roll'd along th' unbroken song
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair, I bow'd 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."
But something inside Longfellow’s heart rose above the despair. He finished with these words:
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."
Merry Christmas! And, may the Prince of Peace grant you His peace this Christmas.
"Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke 2:14).