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.
As he penned the poem that would become a beloved carol, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had good reason to despair. His wife had died in a freak fire; in seeking to save her, Longfellow was so badly burned he could not attend her funeral. The resultant scar tissue made shaving impossible; Longfellow wore a beard for the rest of his life. The grieving widower and father of six then watched his nation turn against itself. His son, a Union Army soldier, now lay at home, wounded: doctors warned that, due to the path the bullet took, paralysis was a real possibility. On Independence Day the July prior, over 4000 soldiers lay dead following the Battle of Gettysburg. Their families would meet Christmas Day wearing mourning.
So on that Christmas day in 1863, Longfellow sat down and bled his soul into a poem. Later, John Baptiste Calkin gave melody to the words. The alchemy of lyric and melody resounds through our bodies like the deep sounding of bells. The tune feels weighty, austere: a cold winter beauty that shocks the heart.
Knowing Longfellow’s story lends potency to his final verse. Here is faith forged in the fires of harsh reality. No fair-haired cutesy angels or quippy platitudes here. Rather a resolute belief in Something larger than a single life, or even of a single lifetime.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
“God is not dead, not doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”*
I don’t know about you, but this Advent season I could easily bow my head in despair. In addition to personal concerns with job loss, health issues, and a tax “reform” that sinks our grad-school daughters already drowning in student loans further into debt, the global and national picture looks bleak. Mass murderers wage war on anyone not like them. No canons this time: its planes and cars and backpacks. This Christmas Day families across the globe mourn.
In addition, the threat of nuclear war has reemerged. And we’ve seen, yet again, the powerful prey on those less powerful. Cutesy angels and quippy truisms just won’t cut it.
But Longfellow’s poem? That’s my challenge. I am grieved that a man with such a heart had such a life. And I am deeply grateful he put his pain—and his hope—onto a page. For those who know something about despair.
And who yearn for a reason to hope.
*Check out Longfellow’s poem in its entirety. It’s well worth a Christmas read.