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CHERYL SEAL REPORTS: A Never-Too-Late Xmas Tale and Song

by Cheryl Seal Sunday, Jan. 04, 2004 at 7:25 PM

In 1864, America was torn in two by the violence and hatred of the Civil War. Yet one man, struggling with his own personal tragedies, still found hope among the ashes...as we in today's world of seemingly endless hatred and violence must also try to do.

NOTE: technical troubles (ignorance of audio file handling!) prevented this from being launched earlier.

I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY: A WAR-TIME EPHIPHANY

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a gentle, romantic man, a poet to whom the violence and hatred of war were horrifying, almost incomprehensible. Thus when the Civil war exploded, he was deeply grieved. Alas, it was to be but the first of a series of traumas that would try Longfellow's soul.

In July, 1861, just a few months after the first guns fired at Fort Sumter, Longfellow's beloved wife Fanny died a horrific death. During an oppressively hot week, she had cut her children's hair, clad in a very light cotton dress. She had decided to preserve a few locks using wax - a popular custom at that time. But as the wax melted, a few drops fell upon her gown. The thin, dry material burst into flame like a torch. Fanny ran screaming into her husband's study. He desperately tried to beat out the flames, first with a small rug, then his own arms. His famous long white beard was grown to hide the scars from the burns he sustained. Fanny, terribly burned and in agony, died the next morning.

Henry was devastated. Even after a year, the sorrow had failed the ease even a little: "I can make no record of these days," he wrote in the summer of 1862. "Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace."

Christmas, once a joyous time for the Longfellows, were especially difficult. "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays," he wrote during the holidays of 1861. On Christmas Day, 1862, he wrote: "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."

Trauma struck the Longfellows again in 1863. That year, Henry's son, Charles ran away from home to enlist in the Union Army. That November, word was brought to the family that Charles had been seriously wounded by in a skirmish near New Hope Church in Virigina. Henry and his other son, Ernst, traveled to Washington, D.C. to collect Charles from a military hospital there and bring him home. The scenes of suffering Henry saw there left a deeply disturbing impression. Charles is said to have lingered a long time between life and death, then depression.

On Christmas Day, 1863, Henry could find no words at all for a journal entry.

It was on Christmas Day, 1864 that Henry experienced an eiphany. He was sitting in his study when he heard the Christmas morning church bells ringing. The sound triggered something inside that poured forth in a poem. He originally called this poem simply "Christmas Bells." Later, this poem was transformed into a Christmas carol by John Baptiste Calkin. Calkin renamed it "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" and eliminated two of the verses because they referred directly to the Civil War - not an appropriate Christmas sentiment - or at least so he thought. There are two alternate melodies for the song, one more "churchish" than the other.

Longellow's epiphany of hope was not in vain. Just over three months later, the Robert E. Lee surrendered and the Civil War ended. Charles went on to make a full recovery and become a world traveler. Longfellow lived to the ripe old age (then, anyway) of 75, long enough to pen some of the best loved poems in American literature.

This Christmas, with the world seemingly in the throes of endless war, with hate and fear ever present, Longfellow's poem seems more appropriate than ever before...in its entirety.



Christmas Bells

The original poem, complete with all seven stanzas

a capella version sung by C. Seal

christmasbells.mp3 (3001 k)

(to access the audio file, go to http://baltimore.indymedia.org/newswire/display/5940/index.php)

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!



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!"

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