Explicating Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a committed abolitionist who viewed slavery as an abomination and the Civil War as a just cause for the Union, as long as it resulted in an end to slavery and subsequent reconciliation between the North and South. “Christmas Bells” references the Civil War directly as a result of a personal attachment: Longfellow was stimulated to write the poem after his son was wounded during battle after enlisting against his father’s will. The legend is that Longfellow actually composed the poem on Christmas Day, 1863 although it would not be published until just a few months before the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Publication took place in a literary magazine for children titled Our Young Folks.
The speaker begins by announcing that on Christmas Day he could hear bells ringing out a tune that was a familiar holiday carol expressing goodwill to men and hoping for peace on earth. The narrator is really the only official character in the poem, although he remains unnamed and unidentified. One may assume he is intended to represent the thoughts and feelings of the poet, but the anxiety that he is feeling certainly seems to imply a greater universality. Not to be confused with representing the universal spirit of Man, however. Context does provide some clues as to identity of the speaker: he is alive during the Civil War and he is a Northerner and he is appalled by the idea that waging war for the purpose of protecting the institution of slavery.
The opening lines of the poem set the stage: it is Christmas Day at a point in time when bells in the belfries of local townships and villages routinely rang familiar Christmas songs. The peal of the carols played on bells appeals to the narrator’s own personal perspective on the war and reflection on how so many bell towers across all of Christendom had been ringing out for the same desires and universal wishes.
“Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” becomes the poem’s constant refrain and its most effective utilization of the parallel construction to lend it meaning coherence throughout. Indeed, this one single line is repeated no less than seven times and probably not by coincidence, the poem is also composed of exactly seven stanzas. And, yes, every stanza draws to a close with this refrain.
The sound of bells ringing out carols of goodwill continue from night into day until they are first merely interrupted and then eventually drowned out by another familiar sound that has been heard ringing out by many Americans across their vast country: “Then from each black, accursed mouth / The cannon thundered in the South.” The war conducted on the battlefield has the effect of an earthquake ripping asunder half a continent and creating a division that brings on feelings of forlorn despair and hopeless despondency which inevitably forces the narrator to bow his head and accept at last the inescapable and undeniable truth that there is no peace on earth because, when all is said and done,
“hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
The rising thunder of war meant to end the abominable national shame of slavery has made an absolute mockery of those songs extolling the virtue and even the mere existence of peace on earth and goodwill among men. The narrator’s bitter awakening to the reality of what Christmas Day means in a country torn apart by war with one side actually willing to die to protect laws legislating bondage of others leaves him nearly broken. Just one heartbreaking step from raising the white of flag surrender and handing over the spoils of victory to everlasting despair, however, peals of the bells being rung again is louder than ever and a force greater than even the thunder of ammunition. As if by some Christmas miracle, right at the very moment before the Narrator hands over his white flag with an implicit acceptance of that the hatred stemming from his conquerors to the South truly is enough to cause songs extolling peace and goodwill to be viewed as mere mockeries forever more, he hears the bells ringing like they never have never run before on Christmas Day. It is monumental sound and profound in its meaning: a euphonious assertion that God is neither dead nor sleeping and eventually—with His help, one assumes—Wrong will fail and Right will prevail and there will be peace on earth with goodwill toward men.
While the subject of the poem is whether peace on earth and goodwill to men is merely a hopeless dream constructed on the shaky foundation of oblivion to the true nature of man or is something genuinely within the grasp of the species, the only other well delineated character of the poem are those men of bad will who obstruct the move toward peace and serenity. This is a collective character rather than an individualized entity, of course, and that collective agency in charge of poisoning even the dream of good wood are expressly described as those firing off their cannons in the South. They are every soldier in gray uniform who flooded the Civil War battlefields in pursuit of the preservation of odious politicians using them as pawns in their bid to forever threaten not just the reality, but the very concept of peace and goodwill ever having the opportunity to nurture and grow in this still young country build on such noble sentiments liberty and freedom. About a decade after Longfellow completed the poem, it was adapted into lyrics to accompany a tune that has that since become one of the familiar traditional Christmas carols heard throughout the holiday season. The title was slightly modified from the original to differentiate the song from the poem. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” has since been covered by artists that include Harry Belafonte, Elvis Presley Bette Midler and the ska-punk band MU-330, thus succeeding in two noble distinctions: making Henry Wadsworth Longfellow one of the most successful Christmas carol lyricists of any American poet and proving that his narrator was right not to give up hope even in his darkest hour.