“Christmas Bells”: Longfellow’s Holiday Poem of Hope Amidst Despair

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), the most widely known and best-loved American poet of his time, was deeply sorrowed when he put pen to paper on Christmas Day, 1863.

He was still grieving the tragic death, just two years earlier, of his beloved wife Fanny, who died of burns received when packages of locks of her children’s hair, which she was sealing with matches and wax, burst into flame and caught her dress on fire. Longfellow tried unsuccessfully to save her by smothering the flames with a rug, and was burned so seriously he was unable to attend the funeral. He turned to ether and laudanum to ease his physical and emotional pain.

After Fanny’s death, Christmas lost its joy for the poet. On Christmas Day, 1861, he wrote in his diary, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” The following Christmas he recorded, “’A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA, where the poem “Christmas Bells” was written

Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA, where the poem “Christmas Bells” was written

While he was a staunch abolitionist, Longfellow was also a pacifist. By the time Christmas arrived in 1863, the American Civil War had been raging for more than two years, and had taken a decidedly personal turn for the poet. Earlier that year, against Longfellow’s wishes, his elder son, Charles, 18, had joined the Union Army. In November, Charles was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church, Virginia. He was brought home to recuperate on December 8.
Charles Longfellow in uniform, 1863

Charles Longfellow in uniform, 1863

Longfellow wrote the poem, “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day, 1863. The poem tells of the narrator’s despair upon hearing Christmas bells, that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” It concludes with the bells carrying a message of renewed hope for peace among mankind.
Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863

Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863

The poem was first published in 1865. It was set to music in 1872 by the English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, becoming the carol with which we are familiar. In his version Calkin removed the stanzas relating to the war, a purge that diluted Longfellow’s powerful message. The poem follows in its original form.

—Lynne Adele

Christmas Bells

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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.”


Rimbaud Perdu

An unknown work by Arthur Rimbaud has been discovered, written during the Franco-Prussian War.

“Bismarck’s dream”, a prose text running to around 50 lines, was published on November 25, 1870 in the local newspaper Le Progres des Ardennes, under the name Jean Baudry.

Rimbaud and his era was a fascination of mine about 20 years ago, about the time that Barnaby Conrad’s coffee table book on absinthe was published. The Franco-Prussian War has been another minor fascination lately. I recently found several small portraits of Prussian soldiers from this era and framed them. They now hang above my DVD shelf. I also recently discovered the probability that one branch of my family (my paternal great great grandmother) immigrated to the US from Prussia just before the war.

-Stephen Lee Canner

The Pirated Oscar Wilde

Reading Dee Brown’s entertaining Wondrous Times on the Frontier recently, I came across a mention of Oscar Wilde, who while touring the United States in 1882, met a boy on a train who was selling pirated editions of a “slight book of poems” he had recently published. Wilde was, of course, indignant, but according to the account seems to have made a sort of peace with the boy who later gave him some oranges as a gift. Wilde was evidently much less chagrined at the potential loss of income than at the shoddy quality of the printing job. Digging for more on this incident I came across an article from the New York Times, July 23, 1883, recounting a lecture that Wilde had given in London. The article has a slightly different account:

He talked of himself in his ‘Impressions of America’ as if he were illustrious there and here, over and over again he spoke of himself as ‘the poet’. He saw a boy selling his ‘pirated poems’ at 10 cents. The boy offered him pea-nuts, but he could not think of buying pea-nuts from a boy who was selling a pirated edition of his poems. So the vendor of pea-nuts said: ‘Do buy, I have never sold to a poet yet.’

This made me wonder whether there are collectors of pirated 19th century editions of the works of “great authors” out there, especially editions released more or less contemporaneously with the original. A bit more research told me that Wilde’s pirated editions do show up in his bibliographies and are mentioned here and there elsewhere. A quick check of online booksellers shows that pirated editions of his books list from around twenty dollars to the thousand dollar range. One copy of Wilde’s Ravenna, listed at over eight hundred dollars, was described as the “First pirated edition.”

Pirated editions of 19th century books say a lot more to me than do first editions. If a book was pirated to any great extent then we’re dealing with a book that really had some sort of effect on the public at large. The fact that copies of Wilde’s poems were selling for a dime a copy, not a dollar, meant that they were meant for a general audience, not the educated elite. Granted, many of the people that purchased these volumes might not have been lovers of poetry, but perhaps they were lovers of spectacle, and by all accounts Wilde’s visit to North America was a bit of a spectacle. The existence of these pirated editions in the United States as early as 1882 doesn’t mean that Oscar Wilde’s writing had much, if any, effect on the country at large at that early date, but it does hint that perhaps the very spirit of his character did.

–Stephen Lee Canner