Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Image from Harper's Weekly: "Christmas Eve, 1862"

While perusing my Christmas anthologies, I learned that "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was written as a commentary on the American Civil War. Though I've known this song since childhood, I had never seen the lengthier version, two stanzas longer than usually printed (stanzas 3 & 4 below). Lamenting a Nation divided, these lines from 1863, also seem sadly relevant now.

click to read
The Story of Pain and Hope Behind
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

and to hear an unusual haunting rendition of the carol

As a brooding, existentialist teenager, I always hung on to that stanza about despair (# 5 below; usually #3 in the sung version), although it was never exactly clear to me how it fit into the rest of the song. Now, seeing the entire context, it makes a lot more sense. What do you think?

The complete poem:

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!

I thought, as now the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
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 hearthstones 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!"

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!

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807 - 1882
most popular, beloved, and successful American poet of his day

~ the story behind the song, narrated by Ed Herman

~ as sung by Karen Carpenter

When I shared these stanzas with my family, my Uncle Gene wrote back to say, "That's simply astounding. I had no idea of verses 3 and 4. On reading them, you can see why, maybe they were never publicized. All the same, they give more meaning to the last ones when read following the brutal war verses." My brother Dave added that after seeing "the extended play version, yes, I agree that all the stanzas together make a much more coherent picture. As a matter of fact, I would say that it was very observant of you as a young lass to have noticed the not too obvious discordance of the work without the 'extra' stanzas." Writing not long after the United States invasion of Afghanistan, Dave suggested that "To take liberties with Henry's work, one could gently alter the third stanza by replacing mouth with beast and South with East, making it more topical, albeit no better."

Thanks to Dave and Uncle Gene for these remarks;
and also to my brother Bruce for the link above from
*The Gospel Coalition.

And while we're on the topic of despair, and bells,
and right and wrong:

"I ask adopt the principles proclaimed by yourselves,
by your revolutionary fathers,
and by the old bell in Independence Hall."

by Frederick Douglass, 1818 - 1895
American abolitionist, women's suffragist, author,
editor, orator, reformer, and great statesman

from an address delivered at the Southern Loyalists' Convention
in Philadelphia, 1866


  1. Good one on The Quotidian Kit - it helps a lot!

    We clearly share similar parenting experiences and views.
    I've been reading one that I'm hooked on -
    I have a feeling you'd get a lot out of it.

    Incredible job on your blog; keep it up.


  2. Wow, thanks Amy! I will go check out "todayscliche."

  3. Emotional Christmas Songs:

  4. Favorite Protest Songs: