clear

Subscribe

Recent Posts

clear

Categories

clear
Friday, 18 December 2009
Christmas Carols V
Share
clear

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

On Christmas Day in 1863AD one of the USA’s great poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), composed the following poem entitled ‘Christmas Bells’:
 
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!"
 
As you can plainly read this poem is not just about the promise of Christmas which was at the time being betrayed in that great fratricidal Civil War, but it also came from the heart and says something about Longfellow’s state of mind. Two years prior to writing this he had lost his wife in an accident at their home in which she died from injuries sustained when her clothing caught fire and he himself was badly scarred as he attempted to save her. His trademark beard was grown to cover the painful scars on his face which made shaving a penance.
 
About a month before penning the words of this poem his son, Lieutenant Charles Appleton Longfellow was severely wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church, VA, during the Mine Run Campaign (late November into early December in 1863AD). The poet’s deep despair and downcast state of mind is plain for all to read in his private journal.
 
However, the Christmas Carol we all know and love (‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’) didn’t come into being until over a decade later:
 
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.
 
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.”
 
Sometime during or after 1873, John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), an English Professor of Music, set the words to one of his own tunes. However, his is not the tune which is most often heard today, that honour goes to a tune composed by Johnny Marks (he of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ fame) sometime in the 1950s.
 
Now, the poet Longfellow was no slouch when it came to learning and you can plainly see that he used much of the ancient symbolism of Christmas – bells, chanting voices in unbroken song, despair (the ‘for-lorn’ referenced in yesterday’s Part IV of this series of posts on Christmas Carols) changed to hope through the Saviour’s coming and the final stanza’s pealing of the bells ‘more loud and deep’ which is nothing more or less than the ancient ‘magic’ of percussion used long before Christ’s coming in order to summon the divine to ones service – the Divine which isn’t dead nor sleeping, but awaits our call to it (in both senses of that phrase).
 
Many of the complexities of our society’s millennia old symbolism is still represented here in a Carol penned in the late nineteenth century of our modern era by a great and well-educated poet of the New World. The fact that the poet’s own despair gave rise to the words somehow, for me, just reinforces the symbolism; and it puts this popular modern Carol firmly into the ancient tradition of our Western world – it’s just another step along the road of our incredibly rich and evolving culture.
clear
Posted on 12/18/2009 7:58 AM by John M. Joyce
Comments
No comments yet.