CHRISTMAS LIGHT IN DARKNESS

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow saw his share of darkness during his time on earth, as we all do, and had to fight the battles we all fight to light candles in the darkness. Especially sad was the loss of his first wife, while he was touring Europe with her, when they were still in the blush of first love. He recovered from that to find a second love, and for a time enjoyed a happy marriage with six children, five of whom survived, before tragedy again struck him.

His wife was sealing up a letter with sealing wax, as was usual in 1861, when her dress caught fire, and despite her husband’s desperate efforts she was so badly burned she died the next day.

That was such a blow that Longfellow had not the heart to write any more poetry. A great darkness decended upon his life, made worse by the onset of the civil war. Then into that darkness came news that his eldest son, seventeen-years-old, had run off to join the army.Longfellow son pic

The son, Charles Appleton Longfellow,  was severely wounded in the battle of New Hope Church (irony), with a bullet passing so close to his spine paralysis seemed likely. Longfellow hurried south to see his son, who clung to life despite all the problems with infection in those days before antibiotics, and Longfellow brought the teenager north to try to nurse him back to life.

Perhaps it was having to fight for a son’s life that revived the old man’s poetic powers, but, while facing the darkness of December and a Christmas made black by the ugliness of war, Longfellow produced this poem:

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.”

The defiance of despair in the face of cruel fate, which manifests in this poem, is one of the most beautiful qualities of the human spirit, and in my humble opinion is proof there is something good in mankind, despite our amazing capacity to make misery when we could make peace.

(The son did survive and walk again, though he did not recover enough to rejoin the army, which he wanted to do.)

This is my favorite version of Longfellow’s poem put to music:

 

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