With the short days and early darkness of this particular season, it is well that we have special holidays to boost our spirits. Already we hear familiar carols played in many places—over music systems in stores and from our own cassette disk players, radio and television.
Can you recall when you first heard and sang American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"?
I thought back to our two-teacher school at Choestoe where I attended as a child. Our teachers always prepared us for a big event, "The Christmas Program," to which our parents and the community were invited. It was sometime during my early elementary school days that I was first introduced to and memorized the words of Longfellow's poem that was set to music composed by John Baptiste Calkin.
Of course I didn't learn many facts about either the poet or the composer back in those early elementary school days. I just memorized the words and learned to sing them to the tune. But from those early years, this particular Christmas carol has remained a favorite of mine, and still is to this day.
The spark for poetry and music was ignited away back in those years at that county school, and fed and nourished as well at the country church by the same name.
Since then, I have learned the story behind the carol, and it, too, is both sad and inspiring.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a northerner, born February 27, 1807 in Portland, Maine. He showed great promise as a student, and by the time he was six, it is said that he already knew Latin grammar, could spell, read and multiply. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but the lad, who entered Bowdoin College at age fourteen, had a bent for writing and for languages. Bowdoin hired him as a professor of Modern Languages and sent him on a trip to Europe to learn more about the languages he would teach. Between the years of 1829 through 1835, he was a beloved young professor at Bowdoin, writing his own textbooks because none were available for the modern languages courses he taught.
He then became a professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, and continued in that position from 1836-1854. It was while there that he began in earnest his writing career. He knew much sadness during these years. His first wife, Mary Storer Porter, whom he wed in 1831 died following the loss of their first child in 1835.
He met Frances Appleton in Europe. She was the daughter of Nathan Appleton, a prominent Boston merchant. Their marriage was exceedingly happy. Their home became a meeting place for noted poets and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, Charles Sumner and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Longfellow became known as "The Fireside Poet."
Tragedy visited again. His wife Frances died in a house fire on July 9, 1861. He never quite recovered from the grief of her passing. He filled his days with writing and traveling, preferring on several occasions to take his motherless children on extended tours of Europe. He wrote over twenty books and numerous poems. He died March 24, 1882 and was laid to rest in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Two years later, his bust was placed in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London, the first American poet to receive that honor.
There is some confusion as to whether Longfellow wrote the seven-stanza poem, "Christmas Bells," on Christmas Day 1863 or 1864. In 1862, the aging poet received word that his son, Lt. Charles Appleton Longfellow, had received a severe wound to his spine. Some have said that the poem on which the carol is based was as much "anti-war" as "pro-Christmas."
In 1872, after the terrible conflict while the nation was still recovering from war, a composer, John Baptiste Calkin set five of Wadsworth's seven stanzas (with only slight changes) to his tune, "Waltham." In later years, other melodies have been used as settings for Longfellow's Christmas poem, but the most popular is the one composed by Calkin.
If you are a fan of the "Casting Crowns" contemporary musical group, you might hear the 2008 version by Mark Hall, lead vocalist, as he sings "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" in the Christmas album, "Peace on Earth."
Read again Longfellow's inimitable Christmas poem. It will inspire you today as it did people who heard it in 1872 when it was first set to music. Two stanzas are repeated here, the 3rd and 4th of the carol. The 3rd refers to the despair brought on by war; the 4th forsees the end of war and restoration of peace:
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, goodwill to men!"
Longfellow's words still have a strong message of optimism and hope for us today in the midst of an economic decline and, as our ancestors would say, "perilous" times. Listen to the Christmas Bells. They still ring out, 'loud and deep'!
c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 4, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.