You might think of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as that 1800s author who wrote all those classical poems that you probably had to memorize parts of in grade school. But you may remember the Christmas carol he wrote the words to, as well, though you may not have realized the back story.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is one of our favorites – it’s different than most Christmas carols. We like it because it offers true perspective, grim reality set against faith that good will prevail. That sort of thinking seems simplistic, but when you know what Longfellow went through in the creation of those lyrics, that thinking gains some credibility. It seems an apt carol for present circumstances ... and it might help us put our present-day suffering in perspective.

In the carol, the narrator hears the bells of Christmas day, but recognizes the hurt in the world, “... from each black, accursed mouth/The cannon thundered in the South...” He admits to despair. “.... There is no peace on earth, I said/For hate is strong, and mocks the song...” But finally gives in to faith that “wrong shall fail, the right prevail/With peace on earth, good will to men.”

You can find the carol in most hymnals and you can use your favorite online search engine to find the whole set of lyrics and any number of sites that explain the back story, which is that Longfellow wrote the set of lyrics in the midst of:

– The terrible Civil War being waged.

– His wife had died not long before from the severe burns she suffered when her clothing caught fire. Longfellow himself struggled to extinguish the flames, even throwing his body over her. Despite efforts, she died, and Longfellow himself suffered scars from burns he got from trying to help her (which, say some, is why he kept a beard the rest of his life).

– His son was in the war and the father had received notice that his son was struck. Messages were mixed and confusing, but at the time, it wasn’t clear if he had been shot in the face, shot in the back and paralyzed, or whether he’d survive or not.

So Longfellow was left alone to raise several children, was dealing emotionally with his wife’s demise and his useless struggle to save her, realizing he may have lost his own son in the calamity of the Civil War.

He gave us a song about fate and loss and suffering and war, and ended it by lyrically marching on.

These times are trying and confusing and none of us are immune from some feelings of threat and suffering, whether it’s because of politics, lost jobs and eviction notices, sickness and loneliness.

Longfellow is a great example of carrying on.

To better days.


Our View editorials represent the opinion of the Appeal-Democrat and its editorial board and are edited by the publisher and/or editor. Members of the editorial board include: Publisher Glenn Stifflemire and Editor Steve Miller.

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