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Longfellow plus more


Blog Posted:12/11/2013 1:29:00 PM

  I didn't write this but it is good to be reminded that faith in the time of trouble can lift us.


— Many musicians and writers of poetry will admit that some of their finest work comes when they have experienced a death or a tragedy of some kind, that the writing of poetry has an almost cathartic effect on the writer.

Such is the case of one of the best known and most beloved  carols associated with Christmas, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which came from the pen of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow  (1807-1882) and was written on Christmas Day, 1864.

His had been a tortured life in last few years before that day. On July 11, 1861, his wife Fanny had clipped some long curls from the head of her seven-year-old daughter, Edith, and wanting to save them in an envelope, melted a bar of sealing wax with a candle to seal the envelope. 

Fanny Longfellow and two of her sons

Somehow the thin fabric of her clothing caught fire, and she quickly ran to Longfellow’s nearby study for help.  He immediately tried to extinguish the flames with a small rug, and when that failed, he threw his arms around Fanny to smother the flames, causing him to sustain serious burns on his face, arms, and hands. His heroic act did not suffice, and Fanny died the next morning of her injuries. Longfellow was unable to even attend the funeral.

Photographs of Longfellow taken or made after the fire usually show him with a full beard, since he was no longer able to shave properly due to the burns and scarring.

The coming of the holiday season in the Longfellow house became a time of grieving for his wife while trying to provide a happy time for the children left at home. It was during Christmas 1862 that he wrote in his journal, “A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” 

He had also suffered another disappointment when his oldest son, Charles Appleton “Charley” Longfellow, quietly left their Cambridge, Mass. home, and enlisted in the Union Army much against the wishes of his father. 

In mid-March, Longfellow had received word from Charles, saying, “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer.”  The determined young man continued, “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”

He was 17 years old and went to Capt. W. H. McCartney, who was in charge of Battery A of the 1st Mass. Artillery, asking to be allowed to enlist. McCartney knew the boy and knew he did not have his father’s permission, so he contacted the senior Longfellow to see if he could obtain it on his behalf.  Longfellow conceded and acceded to the request.

Charles Longfellow

It was only a few months later that Charley came down with typhoid fever and malaria and was sent home to recover, not rejoining his unit until August 15, 1863.

Following the Gettysburg battle, which Charley had fortunately missed, the conflict made its way into Virginia, and it was at the Battle of New Hope Church, in Orange, VA., part of the Mine Run Campaign, that the young Lt. Longfellow sustained injuries, which seriously disabled him. He was hit in the shoulder and the ricocheting bullet took out some portions of several vertebrae. It was reported that he missed being paralyzed by less than one inch.  Longfellow traveled to where his injured son was hospitalized and brought him home to Cambridge to recover.

The war for Charley was over.

And so at Christmas of 1864, a reflective and sad poet sat down and began to write the beautiful words that we sing each Christmas:

 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!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Remembering that this was written during the Civil War, even though not published until 1872, we see the concerns of the War were much on Longfellow’s mind and heart. Thus there were two other verses that appeared in the original as verses four and five and are not song today, since they emphasize his feelings surrounding the War:

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 hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn,

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow’s heartfelt words of loss and hope were published and well received. John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), an English composer, was similarly affected by the poem, and it was he who penned the music that we know and sing today, slightly rearranging the verses or stanzas as he did.

While he was an organist and a music teacher, Calkin probably is best known as the composer of the music for Longfellow’s poem.


Actually the more contemporary arrangement of the song was done in 1956 by a man named Johnny Marks whose version was sung by many including Bing & Sinatra.  In 1958 that same Johnny marks wrote Run Rudolph Run performed by Chuck Berry, Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer, and a couple years later Rockin Around the Christmas Tree sung by Brenda Lee--Among others, he also wrote A Holly Jolly Christmas which most remember Burl Ives singing--pretty amazing!




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  1. Date: 12/11/2013 11:14:00 PM
    i needed this break after reading a few blogs that made me watch some scenes from the zoo.. thanks, craig... longfellow is my kinda guy!... huggs

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  1. Date: 12/11/2013 9:28:00 PM
    Kathryn, treat yourself to a weekend and go to his home just outside of Boston where this all happened. One of the first poems I ever committed to heart was the first verse of Paul Revere's Ride.

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    cornish Avatar craig cornish Date: 12/11/2013 9:50:00 PM Block poet from commenting on your poetry

    and I still know it!
  1. Date: 12/11/2013 9:13:00 PM
    How fortunate I came to soup blog today. I believe Longfellow is my favorite poet. I did not know the story behind his beard only that in pictures before his second wife's death he was clean shaven. Lines from the Children' Hour come to me every now and again. I read it to my mother when she was sick before her death. It was a lifelong favorite of hers. I may know that and Psalm of Life by heart.

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  1. Date: 12/11/2013 4:42:00 PM
    I went to his childhood home in Portland last Christmas season---really awesome. We were told it is was one of the only historical homes in the US with all the original furniture primarily because no one else has ever lived there and it was donated by a member of the Longfellow family with the stipulation that it would stay as it was. Very many homes we see have period furniture but not the original furniture. BTW Most of his poems were written in his Massachusetts home and that is where this incident takes place.

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  1. Date: 12/11/2013 4:25:00 PM
    sooooooo interesting! THANK YOU!!

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  1. Date: 12/11/2013 4:23:00 PM
    One of my favourite songs..Thanks for sharing the story behind it.. I love 'war is over' ,as well as this beauty Always wishing an impossible wish..that the wars in the world end.. lovely blog..Wish you can post more of these.

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  1. Date: 12/11/2013 3:09:00 PM
    Good thing to blog about before Xmas and I love that song!!

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  1. Date: 12/11/2013 2:43:00 PM
    What a sad, yet heartfelt story of a courageous survival through difficult times. It puts so much more meaning to the words of a Christmas carol, which we might otherwise, take for granted. Thanks for sharing this amazing story.

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  1. Date: 12/11/2013 2:34:00 PM
    A very interesting read, Craig. I enjoyed it...

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  1. Date: 12/11/2013 2:20:00 PM
    Craig, thank you for sharing this. It is beautiful indeed to know the background of this carol. I've always gleaned comfort from the thought that some of the best work in the fields of art, music, and literature come from those who have suffered the most, be it a tragic event or a mental illness. There is beauty in brokenness. It comforts me because I battle depression. Some days....I just want to crawl up in bed and shut the world out and just....BE. Other times, I can be the life of the party. It's a difficult existence, but I know that even from my broken state, beauty can come- a very comforting thought, indeed. Thanks for sharing. It has touched my heart.

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