Bells of pain and promise

December 1, 2010

Henry W. Longfellow wrote this poem on Christmas day 1863, after hearing that his son was badly injured in the war.  It is both melancholy and hopeful, often in the same verse.  To me it is a Christmas carol that reflects this struggle we face, even after embracing the Savior.  Life is still hard, but God is on his throne.  He is not, as Bet Midler sang, watching us from a distance.  He is intimately involved, we just don’t always notice.  I don’t know that that’s his fault.

The third verse (stanza) of this song is my favorite verse of any Christmas song except perhaps, Joy To The World.

We have the blessing of often being able to hear a carillon playing at a church almost two miles from our home.  Hearing the bells in the distance reminds me of God’s love.  (It also reminds me of my growing relationship with Diane.  The college we both attended decades ago had a carillon in the center of the campus.  I went head over heals in love while attending college there.)

So as you sing to yourself, think about the torment Longfellow must have felt, fearing for his son and trying, through his pain, to embrace the season.  He left us with a gift in the midst of his pain.  I hope, in my (minor by comparison)  pain, I can give some gifts of words as well.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet the words repeat,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had roll’d along th’ unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bow’d 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:   (My very favorite verse of any Christmas carol especially relevant to my life right now.)
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

‘Til 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!

Historical Note: This hymn was writ­ten dur­ing the Amer­i­can civil war, as re­flect­ed by the sense of des­pair in the next to last stan­za. Stan­zas 4-5 speak of the bat­tle, and are usual­ly omit­ted from hymn­als:  (Wikipedia)

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.

Words: Hen­ry W. Long­fel­low, 1864.

Music: Walt­ham (Cal­kin), John B. Cal­kin, 1872  (Also, more familiar Music by Jonny Marks)


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