Tag Archives: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“FOR HATE IS STRONG AND MOCKS THE SONG”: A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS CAROL

I love Christmas carols and I would have a hard time choosing my favorite, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups have performed variations on it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

The carol is based on a poem written at the height of the Civil War by the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A native of Maine and long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fifty-six-year-old Longfellow was an American celebrity by that time, famous for works such as The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and most recently, Paul Revere’s Ride. (At his death in 1884 he would become the first American to be memorialized by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.) The glow of celebrity was offset by personal tragedy, however. In 1861 Longfellow’s wife Fanny died horrifically in a fire, and Longfellow himself was permanently disfigured in his efforts to save her.  Then, in November 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a nineteen-year-old lieutenant in the Union Army—was severely wounded in fighting in northern Virginia. Still mourning for his wife, and far from certain of his son’s recovery, Longfellow sat down at his desk on Christmas morning, 1863, and penned a seven-stanza poem he called “The Christmas Bells.” Seven years later his poem would be set to music, although in its carol version several of the original verses are rarely sung.

“The Christmas Bells” opens with the now familiar passage from which the carol takes its name:

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!

In verses 2-3 the poet reflects on how the angels’ message would repeatedly resound around the globe as the “world revolved from night to day.” But then in verses 4-5 the chaos and heartache of contemporary events crashes in. Few modern hymnals include these verses, which refer directly to the war raging a few hundred miles away:

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!

gettysburg-first-day-casualties-xl

A scene from the field at Gettysburg, five and a half months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells”

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

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned "The Christmas Bells."

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells.”

In December 1863 the American Civil War had already lasted far longer and exacted a far greater price than almost anyone had anticipated two and a half years earlier. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to serve for only ninety days, and yet northern newspapers had castigated the president for his pessimism. Everyone “knew” that the dust-up down South could not possibly last that long. Zeal and a heart-wrenching naivete were the order of the day, and all across the land young men donned uniforms of blue and gray and rushed to the front, fearing that the war would be over before they could experience its glory.

Thirty-two months later all such innocence was gone, bloodily obliterated on battlefields with names like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. Each casualty statistic on a regimental return represented a husband, son, brother, father, or friend and—as Longfellow knew from experience—a household “made forlorn.” The poet’s anguish in verse 6 is palpable:

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!”

But the poem doesn’t end there, of course. In the poem’s seventh and final verse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preaches the gospel to himself—and to us:

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.”

In these final lines we find not a cry born of wishful thinking, a blind insistence that all is right with the world when that is palpably untrue. We hear instead a faithful declaration from one who sees the reality of hatred and the pervasiveness of suffering and yet finds hope in a Redeemer who would leave the glory of heaven to dwell among us.

May that hope be ours this Christmas.

“FOR HATE IS STRONG AND MOCKS THE SONG”–A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS CAROL

I love Christmas carols and I would have a hard time choosing my favorite, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups have performed variations on it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

The carol is based on a poem written at the height of the Civil War by the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A native of Maine and long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fifty-six-year-old Longfellow was an American celebrity by that time, famous for works such as The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and most recently, Paul Revere’s Ride. (At his death in 1884 he would become the first American to be memorialized by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.) The glow of celebrity was offset by personal tragedy, however. In 1861 Longfellow’s wife Fanny died horrifically in a fire, and Longfellow himself was permanently disfigured in his efforts to save her.  Then, in November 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a nineteen-year-old lieutenant in the Union Army—was severely wounded in fighting in northern Virginia. Still mourning for his wife, and far from certain of his son’s recovery, Longfellow sat down at his desk on Christmas morning, 1863, and penned a seven-stanza poem he called “The Christmas Bells.” Seven years later his poem would be set to music, although in its carol version several of the original verses are rarely sung.

“The Christmas Bells” opens with the now familiar passage from which the carol takes its name:

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!

In verses 2-3 the poet reflects on how the angels’ message would repeatedly resound around the globe as the “world revolved from night to day.” But then in verses 4-5 the chaos and heartache of contemporary events crashes in. Few modern hymnals include these verses, which refer directly to the war raging a few hundred miles away:

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 hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

In December 1863 the American Civil War had already lasted far longer and exacted a far greater price than almost anyone had anticipated two and a half years earlier. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to serve for only ninety days, and yet northern newspapers had castigated the president for his pessimism. Everyone “knew” that the dust-up down South could not possibly last that long. Zeal and a heart-wrenching naivete were the order of the day, and all across the land young men donned uniforms of blue and gray and rushed to the front, fearing that the war would be over before they could experience its glory.

Thirty-two months later all such innocence was gone, bloodily obliterated on battlefields with names like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. Each casualty statistic on a regimental return represented a husband, son, brother, father, or friend and—as Longfellow knew from experience—a household “made forlorn.” The poet’s anguish in verse 6 is palpable:

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!”

But the poem doesn’t end there, of course. In the poem’s seventh and final verse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preaches the gospel to himself—and to us:

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.”

In these final lines we find not a cry born of wishful thinking, a blind insistence that all is right with the world when that is palpably untrue. We hear instead a faithful declaration from one who sees the reality of hatred and the pervasiveness of suffering and yet finds hope in a Redeemer who would leave the glory of heaven to dwell among us.

May that hope be ours this Christmas.

LISTEN MY CHILDREN AND YOU SHALL HEAR . . .

Two hundred forty years ago last night, forty-year-old silversmith Paul Revere crossed the Charles River by rowboat, borrowed a horse in Charlestown, and set off for the villages of Lexington and Concord to inform the countryside that British regulars were coming their way in search of stockpiled weapons and ammunition. And the following dawn, two hundred forty years ago this morning, sixty to seventy militiamen assembled on Lexington Green to stare down the advancing British column. We will never know who fired first that April morning, but the shots that rang out changed the course of American history. The Declaration of Independence was still more than fourteen months in the future, but the Revolutionary War had begun.

If you’re interested in revisiting these critical few hours in the American past, here are four recommendations from four very different genres:

Henry Wadsworth, Longfellow in 1860, portrait by Thomas B. Reed

Henry Wadsworth, Longfellow in 1860, portrait by Thomas B. Reed

First, consider reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poetic account, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” The Cambridge resident and former Harvard professor was fascinated by New England’s history and was given to long romantic poems that brought to life episodes in the region’s past, albeit with a fair measure of poetic license. (See, for example, “The Song of Hiawatha” or “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” both penned in the 1850s.) Longfellow began his retelling of Revere’s adventure in the spring of 1860 and finished the poem in time to get it published in the January 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. As he wrote, he almost certainly was mindful  of the sectional crisis that then jeopardized the nation, and literary experts suspect that the poem’s closing lines were intended as a wake-up call to contemporary patriots:

In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

"Paul Revere's Ride," wood engraving by Charles Green Bush,  New York Public Library

“Paul Revere’s Ride,” wood engraving by Charles Green Bush, New York Public Library

Longfellow’s poem was historically inaccurate in several respects: Revere was not the lone rider commissioned by patriot leaders in Boston to sound the alarm in the countryside; the lighting of two candles in the Old North Church was not a signal to Revere but from him; and perhaps most egregiously, Revere did not make it to his ultimate destination of Concord.  (He was arrested by a British patrol outside of Lexington and released a few hours later.)  And yet Longfellow’s poem is worth our attention because, in a real sense, it is Longfellow who made Paul Revere a fixture in American memory. Before 1861 Revere was comparatively a minor player in the drama of the American Revolution as Americans imagined it. After 1861 Revere became an American icon, and the silhouette of the solitary rider galloping from house to house would become one of the enduring symbols of American patriotism. (If you don’t believe me, just ask Rush “Revere” Limbaugh.)

Helen Crump thanks Andy Taylor for renewing her students' interest in American History.

Helen Crump thanks Andy Taylor for renewing her students’ interest in American History.

Second–and here I’m going from the sublime to the somewhat-less-than-sublime in popular culture–check out this clip from The Andy Griffith Show.  The episode “Andy Discovers America” originally aired on March 4, 1963 and is one of my all-time favorites.  I’m a huge TAGS fan to begin with, so how could I resist this scene where Andy Taylor tells Opie, Barney, and some of Opie’s schoolmates how our country began?  In four and a half minutes you’ll get a classic southern storyteller’s account of both Paul Revere’s ride and the showdown on Lexington Green.  It’s only slightly less historically accurate than Longfellow’s poem and, depending on your taste, a lot more fun.

Paul Revere's 1775 deposition concerning the events of April 18-19, 1775

Paul Revere’s 1775 deposition concerning the events of April 18-19, 1775

Third, why not go to the source and read Paul Revere’s own account of his activities on the night of April 18, 1775?  Revere recorded his experience in detail on two occasions.  Shortly after the war broke out he gave a formal deposition, probably in response to a request from the Massachusetts provincial congress, which was trying to prove that the British had fired the first shot at Lexington.  (Revere made his way back to Lexington after his release and was on the scene by dawn, but he swore that he did not see who fired first.)  Then more than twenty years later he wrote a lengthy letter to the secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society recounting his actions on the 18th and 19th.

Finally, if you have the time, you would never regret reading David Hackett Fischer’s marvelous retelling Paul Revere’s Ride (Oxford University Press, 1995).  Fischer, now retiring from Brandeis after a long and distinguished career (winning the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards), is one of my favorite historians, and Paul Revere’s Ride is one of my favorite works of history.  Fischer is a master narrative historian–there aren’t many of those around any more–and he combines gripping prose with an absolutely scrupulous attention to factual evidence.  You’d love it.

Within the narrative structure of the book—which is bounded tightly by the opening months of 1775—Fischer uses the twin figures of Revere and British commanding general Thomas Gage to drive the story and embody key ideas. Fischer writes, “For Thomas Gage, the rule of law meant the absolute supremacy of that many-headed sovereign, the King-in-Parliament. For Paul Revere it meant the right of a free-born people to be governed by laws of its own making. . . . Their differences were what the American Revolution was about.”

After devoting a chapter to each, the author then gradually broadens his focus to include an ever-increasing circle of characters. By the time that Fischer gets to the 19th of April, he is shifting back and forth (a chapter at a time) from the colonists to the British Army, and I marvel at how he so effectively offers the perspectives of both. In the process, he brilliantly enables the reader to see the drama as it unfolds. Indeed, one of my favorite sections in the whole book is an extended section in which he discusses how the British regulars were uniformed and armed.

PaulReveresRide

Because of the book’s narrative structure it is not overtly argument driven, but I think that there are at least two main points that Fischer thinks it important to make. First, he repeatedly stresses that the colonists were working together in advance of the battles at Lexington and Concord. And so when the regulars marched toward Lexington, the countryside did not spontaneously erupt as individuals unilaterally reached for their hunting rifles and headed toward the sound of the fighting. Instead, there was organization in Boston and much prior planning for a variety of contingencies. When the British acted, Revere and other messengers did not simply ride from house to house awakening the countryside. Rather, they worked through community institutions—militia and churches—to mobilize the populace. Fischer drives home the significance of this distinction: “Paul Revere and his fellow Whigs of Massachusetts understood, more clearly than Americans of later generations, that political institutions are instruments of human will, and amplifiers of individual action. They knew from long experience that successful effort requires sustained planning and careful organization. The way they went about their work made a major difference that night.”

A second theme—implied more than explicitly stated, and yet woven throughout the story—involves the disjuncture between how the common people understood the events that were unfolding and how the story of the coming of the Revolution is usually told in the history books. Fischer makes very little mention of what might be called formal political philosophy. There is no allusion to taxation without representation, no discussion of the Stamp Act and Tea Act, no reference to natural rights or to the writings of John Locke or Thomas Jefferson. The characters who figure in this story simply believed that they should regulate their own affairs, and they bitterly resented British efforts to interfere with that. As they saw things, liberty “did not derive from abstract premises, but from tradition and historical experience.”  Fischer concludes, “In America, it has always been so.”

Throughout, Fischer makes clear that there are things that we can learn from the revolutionary generation, and more than once he calls attention to ways that their values are different from those of the United States of 2015. Most prominently, Americans in 1775 tended to stress collective rights and individual obligations, whereas two hundred forty years later we have pretty much reversed that, stressing individual rights and collective obligations. “We have much to learn from these half-remembered men,” Fischer observes, “a set of truths that our generation has lost or forgotten. In their different ways, they knew that to be free is to choose. The history of a free people is a history of hard choices. In that respect, when Paul Revere alarmed the Massachusetts countryside, he was carrying a message for us.”

A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS CAROL

One of my U. S. history students recently asked me what my favorite Christmas song was. There are many that I love, and I told him that I couldn’t possibly choose just one, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups (Casting Crowns and Jars of Clay, for example) have performed variations on it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

The carol is based on a poem written at the height of the Civil War by the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A native of Maine and long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fifty-six-year-old Longfellow was an American celebrity by that time, famous for works such as The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and most recently, Paul Revere’s Ride. (At his death in 1884 he would become the first American to be memorialized by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.) The glow of celebrity was offset by personal tragedy, however. In 1861 Longfellow’s wife Fanny died horrifically in a fire, and Longfellow himself was permanently disfigured in his efforts to save her.  Then, in November 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a nineteen-year-old lieutenant in the Union Army—was severely wounded in fighting in northern Virginia. Still mourning for his wife, and far from certain of his son’s recovery, Longfellow sat down at his desk on Christmas morning, 1863, and penned a seven-stanza poem he called “The Christmas Bells.” Seven years later his poem would be set to music, although in its carol version several of the original verses are rarely sung.

“The Christmas Bells” opens with the now familiar passage from which the carol takes its name:

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!

In verses 2-3 the poet reflects on how the angels’ message would repeatedly resound around the globe as the “world revolved from night to day.” But then in verses 4-5 the chaos and heartache of contemporary events crashes in. Few modern hymnals include these verses, which refer directly to the war raging a few hundred miles away:

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 hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

In December 1863 the American Civil War had already lasted far longer and exacted a far greater price than almost anyone had anticipated two and a half years earlier. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to serve for only ninety days, and yet northern newspapers had castigated the president for his pessimism. Everyone “knew” that the dust-up down South could not possibly last that long. Zeal and a heart-wrenching naivete were the order of the day, and all across the land young men donned uniforms of blue and gray and rushed to the front, fearing that the war would be over before they could experience its glory.

Thirty-two months later all such innocence was gone, bloodily obliterated on battlefields with names like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. Each casualty statistic on a regimental return represented a husband, son, brother, father, or friend and—as Longfellow knew from experience—a household “made forlorn.” The poet’s anguish in verse 6 is palpable:

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!”

But the poem doesn’t end there, of course. In the poem’s seventh and final verse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preaches the gospel to himself—and to us:

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.”

In these final lines we find not a cry born of wishful thinking, a blind insistence that all is right with the world when that is palpably untrue. We hear instead a faithful declaration from one who sees the reality of hatred and the pervasiveness of suffering and yet finds hope in a Redeemer who would leave the glory of heaven to dwell among us.

May that hope be ours this Christmas.

A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS CAROL (re-post)

As we were finishing up the semester last week, one of my U. S. history students asked me what my favorite Christmas song was.  There are many that I love, and I told him that I couldn’t possibly choose just one, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups (Casting Crowns and Jars of Clay, for example) have performed variations on it.

The carol is based on a poem written at the height of the Civil War by the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  A native of Maine and long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fifty-six-year-old Longfellow was an American celebrity by that time, famous for works such as The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and most recently, Paul Revere’s Ride.  (At his death in 1884 he would become the first American to be memorialized by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.)  The glow of celebrity was offset by personal tragedy, however.  In 1861 Longfellow’s wife died in a fire, and in the fall of 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a lieutenant in the Union Army—was severely wounded in fighting in northern Virginia.  Still mourning for his wife, and far from certain of his son’s recovery, Longfellow sat down at his desk on Christmas morning, 1863, and penned a seven-stanza poem he called “The Christmas Bells.”  Seven years later his poem would be set to music, although in its carol version several of the original verses are rarely sung.

“The Christmas Bells” opens with the now familiar passage from which the carol takes its name:

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!

In verses 2-3 the poet reflects on how the angels’ message would repeatedly resound around the globe as the “world revolved from night to day.”  But then in verses 4-5 the chaos and heartache of contemporary events crashes in.  Few modern hymnals include these verses, which refer directly to the war raging a few hundred miles away:

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 hearthstones of a continent, / And made forlorn the households born / Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

In December 1863 the American Civil War had already lasted far longer and exacted a far greater price than almost anyone had anticipated two and a half years earlier.  After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to serve for only ninety days, and yet northern newspapers had castigated the president for his pessimism.  Everyone “knew” that the dust-up down South could not possibly last that long.  Zeal and a heart-wrenching naivete were the order of the day, and all across the land young men donned uniforms of blue and gray and rushed to the front, fearing that the war would be over before they could experience its glory.  Thirty-two months later all such innocence was gone, bloodily obliterated on battlefields with names like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga.  Each casualty statistic on a regimental return represented a husband, son, brother, father, or friend and—as Longfellow knew from experience—a household “made forlorn.”  The poet’s anguish in verse 6 is palpable:

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!”

But the poem doesn’t end there, of course.  In the poem’s seventh and final verse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preaches the gospel to himself—and to us:

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.”

In these final lines we find not a cry born of wishful thinking—a blind insistence that all is right with the world when that is palpably untrue—but rather a faithful declaration from one who sees the reality of hatred and the pervasiveness of suffering and yet finds hope in a Redeemer who would leave the glory of heaven to dwell among us.

May that hope be yours this Christmas.

A Civil War Christmas Carol

As we were finishing up the semester last week, one of my U. S. history students asked me what my favorite Christmas song was.  There are many that I love, and I told him that I couldn’t possibly choose just one, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups (Casting Crowns and Jars of Clay, for example) have performed variations on it.

The carol is based on a poem written at the height of the Civil War by the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  A native of Maine and long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fifty-six-year-old Longfellow was an American celebrity by that time, famous for works such as The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and most recently, Paul Revere’s Ride.  (At his death in 1884 he would become the first American to be memorialized by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.)  The glow of celebrity was offset by personal tragedy, however.  In 1861 Longfellow’s wife died in a fire, and in the fall of 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a lieutenant in the Union Army—was severely wounded in fighting in northern Virginia.  Still mourning for his wife, and far from certain of his son’s recovery, Longfellow sat down at his desk on Christmas morning, 1863, and penned a seven-stanza poem he called “The Christmas Bells.”  Seven years later his poem would be set to music, although in its carol version several of the original verses are rarely sung.

“The Christmas Bells” opens with the now familiar passage from which the carol takes its name:

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!

In verses 2-3 the poet reflects on how the angels’ message would repeatedly resound around the globe as the “world revolved from night to day.”  But then in verses 4-5 the chaos and heartache of contemporary events crashes in.  Few modern hymnals include these verses, which refer directly to the war raging a few hundred miles away:

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 hearthstones of a continent, / And made forlorn the households born / Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

In December 1863 the American Civil War had already lasted far longer and exacted a far greater price than almost anyone had anticipated two and a half years earlier.  After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to serve for only ninety days, and yet northern newspapers had castigated the president for his pessimism.  Everyone “knew” that the dust-up down South could not possibly last that long.  Zeal and a heart-wrenching naivete were the order of the day, and all across the land young men donned uniforms of blue and gray and rushed to the front, fearing that the war would be over before they could experience its glory.  Thirty-two months later all such innocence was gone, bloodily obliterated on battlefields with names like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga.  Each casualty statistic on a regimental return represented a husband, son, brother, father, or friend and—as Longfellow knew from experience—a household “made forlorn.”  The poet’s anguish in verse 6 is palpable:

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!”

But the poem doesn’t end there, of course.  In the poem’s seventh and final verse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preaches the gospel to himself—and to us:

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.”

In these final lines we find not a cry born of wishful thinking—a blind insistence that all is right with the world when that is palpably untrue—but rather a faithful declaration from one who sees the reality of hatred and the pervasiveness of suffering and yet finds hope in a Redeemer who would leave the glory of heaven to dwell among us.

May that hope be yours this Christmas.