Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells

Nov 26, 2014

Christmas Bells

— Seth Osborn

Boulder, CO


As the Christmas season approaches, I find myself remembering one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets: “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It’s possibly better known as the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (though the song cuts out the fourth and fifth stanzas). Longfellow wrote it on Christmas Day, 1863, and it starts out with the Christmas spirit one might expect:


“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!”


However, Christmas spirit wasn’t what inspired Longfellow to write this poem. His son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, had joined the Union to fight in the Civil War, and was severely wounded during the battle of New Hope Church—the bullet that pierced him was only an inch away from paralyzing him. Charles lived on, but Henry was distressed by his son’s injury, having lost his wife to a fire only three years prior. Hence the fourth stanza:

Christmas bells

“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!”


The narrator’s sadness grows until we finally get to the sixth verse:


“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!’”


Thankfully, there’s one last thought that Longfellow decided to add. After all, his son

was still alive! There was joy to be had!


“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.’”


Something interesting to note is the finality of this ending. The poem is split into three parts: a first group of three stanzas about the joy of Christmas, a second group of three about the hopelessness brought on by the evils of mankind, and this last stanza that stands on its own. The other two ideas needed to be expounded on, while this verse stands alone to show that no more needs to be said. God is watching out for us, even if sometimes it feels like He isn’t. He’s there, He cares, and He will make sure everything is right in the end. With that in mind, I hope you all have a merry Christmas, and may there be peace on earth, goodwill to men!

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