Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Peace On Earth, Good Will to Men

I look at this picture and my first thought is: Thank goodness portraits are no longer done in profile! Next, I think of my favorite Christmas carol. In the photo are Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, his wife Fanny, and the two oldest of their six children. It was taken years before Henry grew his trademark beard; the beard he grew to cover the scars.

Henry had already lost his first wife, who'd died after a miscarriage, when he met Fanny in 1836. No one can pine quite like a poet and for seven years, on almost a daily basis, he crossed the bridge from his home in Cambridge to walk to her home in Boston. He became such a familiar sight that the Boston Bridge was later renamed The Longfellow Bridge, which I find highly romantic.

Henry and Fanny married in 1843 and Longfellow was blissfully happy. Interestingly, their third child and first daughter, Alice, was delivered with Fanny under anesthetic--a first in North America. Despite the neighbors' comments, "How dare she avoid the curse of Eve," Fanny was feeling quite comfortable with the decision. Their youngest daughter's name, Allegra, was a tribute to the joy they felt in family life.

The Civil War began in April 1861, a tragedy for the whole country. Only three months later, on a hot day in July, Fanny wrote in her journal, "We are all sighing for the good sea breeze...Poor Allegra is very droopy with heat, and Edith has to get her hair in a net to free her neck from the weight." Instead, Fanny trimmed Edith's curls and saved them in an envelope. To seal it, she melted a bar of wax with a candle and either the match or the burning wax fell on her dress. The flame was strengthened by the sea breeze that came through the open window and she ran to Henry. He threw a rug over her to stop the fire, but in the end only severely burned himself. Fanny died the next morning and Henry was too ill to attend the funeral.

Longfellow wrote that Christmas, "How inexpressibly sad are all the holidays." Soon after, his oldest son Charles joined the Union forces. Charles became a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac and was a source of pride for his father and siblings. On a December night in 1863, a young courier delivered a telegram to their door. Charles had been seriously wounded. Henry and his son Ernest went to Washington and brought Charles home to recuperate. Doctors feared he might be paralyzed. That Christmas, with the war in full force, desperately missing his wife, and with his son's future uncertain, Longfellow wrote the poem, Christmas Bells.

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 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 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.

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."

The fourth and fifth verses, which relate directly to the Civil War, were omitted when it was put to music as the Christmas carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Even before I knew the story behind the lyrics, I loved this song because of its hopeful message. Now that I do know the story, I love it even more. After all Longfellow had endured, with the future of his son, his family, and his country bleak, he still found hope. He still believed that the right would prevail and that eventually there would be peace on earth, good will to men.

A family we know and love has had a Longfellow type of year. Frankly, I think even worse. On Easter Sunday they lost their precious teenage daughter after a sudden illness. It was the type of blow that almost seems beyond the human capacity to endure. But with God's help, they have endured. I got their Christmas letter in the mail a few days ago but I couldn't read it in one sitting. I'll admit, that even just as a friend, I couldn't handle the emotion. I finished it today and I'm in awe of their strength. After all they've been through, they ended with hope. They know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is not dead nor doth he sleep. They know that they will see their daughter again and be reunited as a family. Their faith strengthens my knowledge of God's love for us all and gives me hope of a day when there will be "Peace on Earth, good will to men."


Normally I'm opposed to "modern" versions of traditional songs but I've heard this one on the radio several times and it's grown on me. I might even love it.


Alyson (New England Living) said...

What a beautiful post. I loved it. So sad for your friends. Glad to hear that they can feel even a glimmer of hope after what they've been through.

Thanks for sharing the story of Longfellow. I didn't know all of that. I shall think of him when I go into Boston next week.

rachel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rachel said...

I LOVED this post! Thank you for sharing it. I'm so sorry for your friends. I can't imagine their heartache! I didn't know any of the story of Longfellow, but I will never
hear that song the same way again. Your post brought tears to my eyes. You have a beautiful testimony. There is not a Christmas post I've read that has touched me more quite honestly.

Diane said...

Thank you for your beautiful post. I never knew the full history about that beloved
Christmas carol. I am so sorry about your friend's loss, it is inspiring to hear they are facing their tragedy with such hope and faith.

Jen Bay said...

This song has been particularly dear to me this season. BYU TV broadcast a "Music and the Spoken Word" where a special presentation of the song "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" was sung, and narrated by a wonderful actor who made the story all that much more my favorite. Coincidentally, I too found "Casting Crowns" (did you catch the Christmas at the White House and see them perform it?) and bought their whole album. It was fun to see the pictures as well.

Terynn said...


I wrote about this very carol yesterday!!


I love, love, love it! Thanks for the photos of Henry and his family. I love seeing their humanity.

I am so very sorry for your friends. I am thankful that, their loss, you are able to see and experience the hand of God. It makes Him so real...so close.

Lisa Cairney said...

So awesome, Eileen...THIS is such a gift of yours...to bring a historical event/figure to life to touch our hearts today....I am like the others...will never hear that carol again in the same way....such a great post. Merry Christmas, my gifted, gifted friend. I love you!

Carey-Life in the Carpool Lane said...

Truly a beautiful post. I loved the history, the humanity and the hope in Longfellow's story.
Thank you for sharing and happy holidays...

Kelly said...

Thank you for this post Eileen. You can be as touching and you can be funny. So glad to be enlightened by you. I truly hope for more peace on earth this Christmas season. Merry Christmas to you!

Suzanne said...

Your post was just what I needed as I returned home from shopping and running around at 11:30 pm. I was exhausted and thinking "why do we do this??" You helped put things back into perspective! This has been such a challening year for so many. It makes you realize what is really important.