The Day Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Heard The Bells

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At our Christmas Eve service last night the pastor shared the backstory for what we’ve come to know as the much-loved Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” I’m guessing that whether it be this or many another Christmas hymns, we’re often oblivious to who wrote it or what prompted the poets to pen their powerful prose.

IN THIS INSTANCE, that poet was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a nineteenth century poet and educator famous for poems like “Paul Revere’s Ride” and his poems against slavery. His first wife died during a miscarriage, but after traveling abroad he eventually remarried.

In 1861, Longfellow was shaken again when his second wife, to whom he was very devoted, was tragically burned to death. The accident occurred as she was placing locks from their children’s hair into an envelope. While using a candle and sealing wax she set her dress on fire. He himself suffered burns while trying to put the fire out. This second marriage of 18 years, he declared, had been the happiest years of his life. He became so overcome with grief that he later resorted to ether and an opiate known as laudanum to keep from going insane.

In 1863, during the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union cause as a soldier, without his father’s blessing. In November his son was shot in the back, near mortally wounded by a bullet that grazed his spine and broke his father’s heart yet again. After the death of his second wife Longfellow had abandoned writing poetry and the debilitating injury to his son only deepened his pain.

Then, on Christmas day, 1863, he heard the church bells ringing, which set in motion this profoundly personal expression of human response to evil and good, to despair and hope, later put to music in the carol we know as “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” Here is the full poem, including two verses, the fourth and fifth, which you may not usually sing.

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.”

* * * *

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By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

RING out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night —
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new —
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress for all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times:
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite:
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land, —
Ring in the Christ that is to be.


Originally published at on December 25, 2018.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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