Tuesday, December 25, 2007

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Posted by Bruce Miller
Christmas Day, 2007

As those of you who read this blog know, P. J. Whiteway was able to come home this Christmas. Tomorrow, Dec 26, he flies back to Iraq. As we celebrated last night at our traditional Miller/Whiteway Christmas Eve dinner, I couldn’t get this carol out of my head.

Christmas Bells
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill 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, goodwill 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, goodwill to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, goodwill 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, goodwill 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, goodwill 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, goodwill to men.

It's good to remember that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this poem on Christmas Day, 1863 at the height of the Civil War--a war that Longfellow heartily opposed, as poets in all times are apt to do. Verses three and four aren’t often heard today, but they certainly provide the lyric with context.

And the war itself was not the only sorrow on Longfellow’s mind. His dear wife of 18 years had died 30 months earlier when her dress had caught fire and he had been unable to smother the flames. Their oldest son, Charles, was a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac and suffered life-threatening wounds only 18 days before Henry heard and immortalized those Christmas bells.

And yet, despite his personal and our national grief, Longfellow managed to follow verse five with verses six and seven.

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

May all of us hear … may all of us be that “voice.” May all our thoughts and hopes and songs combine to create that “chant sublime,” finally bringing peace back to our broken world.

Merry Christmas. And may God bless us every one!

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

I've loved this carol all my life, and never knew the story behind it. This was a nice Christmas post. Like everyone else, I hope all our men and women in Iraq stay safe and come home soon.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Whiteway and family! I would just like to let you know that I am thinking of your family and PJ of course, while he is serving in Iraq. My brother is also deployed with the Navy and the holidays were especially difficult for us. I am very proud to say that I know PJ, he is an amazing person. I wish you much happiness and health this year, and here's to hoping he can come home soon!