The year 1863 was nearing its end as the retired Harvard professor sat down
to the worktable in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, study. Taking a pencil
from amidst the stack of books, printers' proofs and other papers, he began
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
The past several years had not been kind, neither to the author nor to his
nation. In July of 1861 his second wife had been sealing locks of hair belonging
to their five children into packets as mementos. A drop of hot wax ignited
her light summer dress. Her husband had come running to her side and severely
burned his hands trying to beat down the flames. The next day she was dead.
He would later write to a friend, describing himself as, "to the eyes
of others, outwardly calm...inwardly bleeding to death."
Also beginning to bleed inwardly, his country had gone to war that same
year. And now, two years later, in March, his oldest son Charley, 19, had
run off to join the Union Army. Notified of his son's efforts to enlist,
he reluctantly gave his permission. Charley was back home in June, now a
lieutenant, suffering from typhoid fever and malaria. He was still there
the following month, when 5,747 Americans were slaughtered in north-central
Pennsylvania. 27,000 were wounded, over 10,000 missing.
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
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!
Sufficiently recovered, Charley had returned to his unit in the middle of
August. The war dragged on, heading toward the New Year. Then, on December
first, the telegram came. A skirmish at New Hope Church, Virginia. The bullet
had entered Charley's left shoulder, traveled across his back, missing the
spine by an inch, and out the right shoulder. He had been carried back to
a hospital in Washington. His condition was grave. His father and younger
brother Ernest caught the next train south. The journey must have seemed
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!"
When the two arrived in the capital they found their way to the hospital.
The father gave the attendant his son's name, dreading the response.
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!
English organist and composer John Baptiste Calkin set the poem to music
nine years after it was published. And in Cambridge, nursed back to health,
Charles Appleton Longfellow would outlive his father Henry by eleven years,
dying in 1893.
For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor, wishing you all of the
'peace on earth and good will' you can possibly handle. See you next year.
© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte
The following information might be of interest. Look on it as sort of the
DVD (enhanced) version, not broadcast.
I left one stanza out of the full version of I Heard the Bells, for
purposes of balance and timing. It follows verse one
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!
For much of the material about Charles LongfellowI'm indebted to Robert
Girard Carroon and his web page for the Military
Order of the Loyal Legion of the U. S.
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