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Archive for December 20th, 2019

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Interesting history behind the Henry Wadswoth Longfellow poem below that was transformed a few years after it was written in late 1863 into a well holiday song.

The 1860’s were a tragic time for the poet Longfellow. In addition to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, his wife was killed in a tragic fire at his home. In early 1863, his oldest son enlisted in the Union Army despite his father’s protests. That same year he was severely wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. He survived but the injuries ended his army career.

This poem was a response to the times from Longfellow. The next to the last stanza points out his despair and his waning faith in the face of a divided nation:

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!”

But in the last stanza, upon hearing the loud pealing of the Christmas bells, he regains his belief that good will overcome evil:

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.

The poem became popular at the time and was first set to music as a song in 1872 by British organist John Baptiste Calkin and then again in 1956, by American songwriter Johnny Marks, whose version, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, was first recorded that year by Bing Crosby. The Marks song has been recorded by over 60 artists and has sold over 5 million copies.

It’s a poem and song of hope for dark times. We can certainly use that these days.

 

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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.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863

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