formerly Transcendental dram

“There is no peace on earth, I said.”

None other than American science and fiction writer Ray Bradbury described “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” as “immensely moving, overwhelming, no matter what day or what month it is sung.” It may well be the most poignant of all Christmas carols, and yes, it rings true throughout the year.

The poem, “Christmas Bells” was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at the height of the American Civil War, 150 years ago at this time of the year, in 1863. He wrote it on Christmas Day with a heavy heart: his wife had recently died in an accidental fire. He had desperately tried to save her, sustaining serious burns to his face. From then on he would wear a beard because he could not properly shave. And earlier that year, his son Charlie joined the Union Army against his father’s wishes. He was gravely wounded in the battle of New Hope Church in Virginia in November. So as he tells us, he bowed his head and penned these words: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”
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 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.

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!

It was not until 1872 that the poem would be set to music. There are a number of versions of the song, the earliest by English organist, John Baptiste Calkin. John Gorka recorded the song and sings it much as I imagine Longfellow wrote it—alone and with a heavy heart.

The video above is very powerful: black and white images of the Civil War and contemporary wars in Iraq/Afghanistan. It opens with a narrated summary of the content of this post, followed by a choir version of the carol over the war images. It’s well worth a few minutes of reflection.



About Author

Josh is an author, former blogger, media critic, x-Capitol Hill legislative aide and White House assistant, business consultant, idea marketing specialist, a squatter at the global village virtual bar and an alpine rock gardener where he lives in Woodstock, NY.

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