Treasure Trove: ‘Christmas Bells’ by Henry Wandsworth Longfellow

I first came across this poem as a Christmas carol adaptation by one of my favourite contemporary Christian bands, Casting Crowns (you can listen to their version here). Longfellow (1807-1882) wrote the original in 1863, in response to the American Civil War (1861-1865). It was an intensely personal poem: Longfellow’s eldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, had joined the War in the Union cause without his father’s blessing, and had later been seriously wounded in Virginia.

sidney-e-king-capture-of-ricketts-battery
Sidney E King, ‘The Capture of Rickett’s Battery’

Although it has subsequently been adapted several times, with the more specific references to the War altered or omitted, the original runs as follows:

 

 

 

     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.”

nathan-greene-the-second-coming-of-jesus
Nathan Greene, ‘The Second Coming of Jesus’

As a Christian, the theme of earthly despair in the face of human brutality giving way to rejoicing in the eternal promise of God’s coming Kingdom of justice and love, is one which resonates deeply with me and captures a very different aspect of the Christmas promise to that celebrated in many of our other traditional carols (which I also love). Indeed, it is perfect for this liturgical season of Advent, in which we traditionally look forward not only to the celebration of God’s incarnation as the Christ-child but also to his return on the Day of Judgement – which, to the believer, is not to be feared but rather longed for as the promised day on which, as Longfellow wrote, ‘the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.’

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