Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Bells

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Christmas Bells is a magnificent poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) that has also been set to music to make for one of our most beautiful Christmas carols.  As with most art, the gestation period was not an easy one…
Longfellow was a celebrated American poet, nearly as famous today as he was in his own era.  Most of us can recite snippets of Longfellow without necessarily knowing who it is we quote – it was Longfellow who wrote Paul Revere’s Ride and The Song of Hiawatha, as well as Evangeline. 
Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine (then part of Massachusetts) and spent some time abroad before becoming a professor at his alma mater, Bowdoin.  He taught for several years before retiring in 1854 to focus on his poetry and translations (he is the first American to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy). 
Longfellow was married twice, his first wife dying in childbed and his second wife died tragically when her dress caught fire (a not-uncommon occurrence at that time). 
In March 1863, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, left the house late at night and vanished.  It was not until weeks later that Longfellow received a letter explaining what had happened.  Charles ran off to join the Union army, then embroiled in the Civil War.  Charles initially reported to Captain W. H. McCartney, commanding Battery A of the 1st Massachusetts Artillery, to enlist. McCartney knew the family and wrote to Longfellow asking his advice.  Longfellow granted his permission and Charles served honorably, attaining the rank of lieutenant, before he was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church during the Mind Run Campaign.
Charles was shot through the left shoulder, the bullet travelling around his back, nicking his spine and exiting through his right shoulder.  When Charles returned to Washington, D.C. to recover, Longfellow and his other son Ernest went there to take the boy back home.  They arrived back in Cambridge on December 8 (today marks the 147th anniversary of this event) and Charles spent the next many months recovering.
On Christmas Day of that year, Longfellow wrote 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."
The poem was first published in February 1865 in an edition of the popular magazine Our Young Folks.  It was first set to music in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin, wedding the words to a melody he had written as early as 1848.
The Calkin rendition was extremely popular for a long while, but it was supplanted (to this listener, at least) by a melody written by Johnny Marks (1909-1985). The Marks version, often called I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day, has been recorded by such artists as Fred Waring, Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra and, most successfully, Bing Crosby.  In almost all recordings, verses Four and Five of the poem/carol are omitted.  If you can, track down the Crosby version on You Tube; it is a remarkable recording.
Charles Longfellow recovered, but never sufficiently to return to active military duty.  Using family money, he became a global traveler with a taste for the Far East.  He died of pneumonia in 1893 and the souvenirs of his travels are on view at Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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