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, 1807-1882
I've long been familiar with the Christmas carol which uses lines from this poem, but I've only just become acquainted with the poem itself. Written by Longfellow at the height of the Civil War, it hits a bittersweet note, and threatens to end in despondency. After bemoaning the cannon fire rending the country apart, in the penultimate stanza he despairs, "There is no peace on earth... For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
That winter as Longfellow sat down to write this poem he had much more than the war to despair of. In 1835, after only four years of marriage, his wife had a miscarriage and died. He remarried in 1843, but lost his second wife after a flame from a candle set her dress on fire. Longfellow attempted to put the fire out, suffering burns to his face in the process, but to no avail. (Eighteen years later, he wrote a poignant sonnet where he called his wife's death the cross that he would always bear.) His eldest daughter had died several years earlier, and only two years after his wife's death, Longfellow's eldest son ran off without his father's permission to join the Union army. In 1863, this son was hit by a bullet which nearly left him paralyzed. As young Charles recovered in his father's house, Longfellow penned "Christmas Bells".
That first Christmas after his wife died, Longfellow wrote in his diary, "How inexpressively sad are all holidays." The following Christmas he wrote, "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me." And, then, two years later, in Christmas 1863, he reached deep within to draw consolation and hope from a source outside himself. After announcing that there is no peace on earth, the loudly pealing bells remind him "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Longfellow's reminder to remember that God is good is something we all must remind ourselves of, even as the world around us looks bleak and hopeless. As we celebrate the birth of Christ this season, I pray that we take comfort from the hope that God doth not sleep and that right shall prevail.