“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a Christmas poem that has entered the list of carols frequently sung, published in songbooks, and put into the never-ending loop of musak piped into American malls.  But there is a dramatic story of suffering and faith expressed in this poem out of a context of war and dreams of peace.  Usually the war verses are deleted from the poem as it appears in hymnals, which is a pity as these verses give the existential anguish expressed in the despair of the next to last verse and the ringing affirmation of the final verse.  (Videos of this song follow the full text of Longfellow’s poem below.)

Longfellow wrote the poem in 1863 after his son Charles joined the Union Army in the American Civil War without his father’s blessing.  Charles was then severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia.  Longfellow’s reference in verses often left out speak of the “black, accursed mouth” of the cannons which wreaked such havoc on the battlefield and the forlorn households torn by grief over loved ones lost or maimed.  That context gave rise to first the despair and then the answering faith and hope.

Here is the text of the poem Longfellow wrote:

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 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!

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!

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.”

I tried to find the carol sung in full, but couldn’t.  The closest was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing with Ed Herrman telling the story of Longfellow’s poem including quoting some of the verses left out of the carol:

Echosmith plays the traditional tune rocked up:

Here is John Gorka’s tune to the most common carol text:

Casting Crowns arranged a version that has been covered by many artists and choirs: