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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Christmas Bells"

Updated on December 20, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Christmas Bells"

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Christmas Bells" is remarkable not only for its beautiful tribute to Christmas but also for its commentary regarding the American Civil War, which was in progress at the time the poet composed this poem on Christmas Day 1863. It was not published until 1865, but by 1872, it was set to music and became a world famous Christmas carol.

The poem features seven cinquains, each with the rime scheme, AABBC. It features the phrase, "peace on earth, good-will to men," which became a widely employed invocation for world peace.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Christmas Bells

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.”

Reading of "Christmas Bells" with musical accompaniment

Commentary

First Cinquain: Ringing in Christmas

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!

The speaker reports that upon hearing the church bells pealing and the singing of carols in celebration of Christ's birth, he was reminded of the purpose of Christmas celebration of peace and harmony among the world's citizens.

This line—"Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"—becomes the refrain in this poem that may also serve as a hymn. The refrain allows the poem to function magnificently as a chant. It has been invoked many times in many places for that purpose since its composition in 1863.

Second Cinquain: A Reminder of Peace

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!

Hearing the bells and the caroling also reminds the speaker of the "unbroken song" of Christ's birth that is celebrated in all places where Christians acknowledge and love Jesus Christ.

Again, the speaker repeats that all important image, "Of peace on earth, good-will to men!" The chanted line remains an important feature of this poem for its ability to alter even the speaker's mood as he continues to describe his reaction to hearing the bells.

Third Cinquain: Heavenly Sounds

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!

The sounding of the bells and voices singing Christmas carols continued throughout the day as the day turned into night. The speaker describes the sounds he hears as voices and chimes. He finds those sounds to be heavenly; they remind him of all things sublime. And the chant he has fashioned again closes the cinquain.

The simple chanting of an uncomplicated but seemingly unattainable state of earthly tranquility provides the atmosphere in which a mind may rest, if only for a moment. The necessity of that rest becomes paramount during times of holy day recognition, and the celebration of the birth of Christ offers "Christendom" that opportunity for solemn meditation on the soul.

Fourth Cinquain: A Moment of Bleak Melancholy

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!

The speaker's enjoyment of the beauty of the bells and singing is suddenly interrupted by the loud, explosive reminder that a war is in progress. Symbolizing the war, cannons are loudly reminding the speaker of the unfortunate events that are being played out, especially in the southern part of his country.

Those likely metaphoric sounds have intruded into the speaker's consciousness at a time when he is musing on beautiful qualities that should exist, specially at this time of year. The loud cannons that "thunder" become the tool for covering the beauty of the carols that proclaim earthly peace and the lovely fellow feeling that should exist among all citizens.

Fifth Cinquain: Peace Broken by War

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!

The speaker then likens the intrusion of war into this peaceful beauty to an earthquake that breaks up the very ground beneath the feet of the citizens. The households seem to be suddenly stripped of the serenity that should be aglow with the peace and harmony for each family.

The speaker is aware that too many families have been affected by the war as husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters have gone off to war to defend what they consider their homeland. This "earthquake" of war has caused a melancholy atmosphere to fall over the citizenry. And the speaker continues to yearn for peace and tranquility.

Sixth Cinquain: No Peace—Just Despair and Hatred

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!”

The speaker looks down; he feel desperate for better times. He bemoans the fact that currently peace does not reign over the land. His country is engaged in a bloody battle for its soul; it is being pulled apart by differences that reflect strong hatred. Political differences have spoiled the peace that should be spreading instead of the chaos of war and hatred.

Because there is such strong hatred in the world, the song of peace is mocked by the brutality of war, which contrasts so violently with the notion of peace and harmony. Sadly then, the speaker is experiencing a moment of hopelessness that there is no truth in chanting about peace, love, and good-will.

The contrast between his earlier feeling regarding peace and harmony reflected by his repeated refrain and this painful realization that peace is lacking must have been excruciating for the speaker as he passes through that dark moment brought on by the reality of war raging in his country.

Seventh Cinquain: The Return to Faith and Joy

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.”

Just as suddenly as the melancholy had momentarily overtaken him, the speaker's mind fortunately returns to its faith that all will be well. The bells' tone now seems to become even deeper and louder, causing the speaker's musings to be uplifted. His heart and mind become filled with the notion that the wrong of the world will be defeated by the right, which will win.

The speaker assures himself that God is in control, and that God never abandons His children. The sound of the bells continues to peal in the speaker's consciousness as they deliver his mood from sadness to hope and faith again.

The speaker can then place his emphasis on the refrain that had brightened all the preceding stanzas of his discourse. He can chant again his invocation for peace and good-will for all his earthly brethren. Thus he proclaims the truth that God still fills the world's faithful "With peace on earth, good-will to men."

The Story Behind the Poem

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
      Author

      Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you, Surabhi! Really appreciate your kind words. Merry Christmas to you! And best wishes for a Happy New Year.

    • profile image

      Surabhi Kaura 2 years ago

      That was a very well-written, and yes, wonderful analysis of Wordsworth's Christmas poem. What a pleasure to read this hub! Much thanks. Merry Christmas, my friend :)

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