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December 25, 2012

MIKE LUNSFORD: On this day above all, ‘Peace on earth, good will to men’

More than a year after his wife’s death, the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote in his diary on Christmas Day. “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me. Perhaps someday God will grant me peace.”

It is an often-told story. Longfellow, who had endured the death of his first wife in 1832, had lost his second, Frances, in 1861 to a tragic fire, and the grieving widower was in despair. He was a man who had come to know sorrow and loneliness and anger.

In the wake of what has happened in Newtown, through the pall that has been cast over us this Christmas by the murderous evil that manifested itself there, something can be learned from Longfellow and how he turned his grief and sorrow toward faith and understanding. He never got over Fanny’s death. That is evident in his sonnet, “A Cross of Snow,” written in 1879, but he did understand that hope could emerge from heartache, and, for us, that may be the only real lesson we can take from what has transpired in Connecticut these past few weeks.

In the spring of 1861, Longfellow and Fanny, and their five children, were living happy lives.

He was America’s most established and popular poet, known for his depictions of Paul Revere, the wreck of the good ship Hesperus, Miles Standish’s courtship, and so many others. He was among the nation’s most outspoken opponents of slavery, and he and his wife lived in a beautiful and already historic home (Craigie House had been General Washington’s Revolutionary War headquarters for a while), given to the couple by Fanny’s father. Life in that house near the Charles River in Cambridge was safe and secure, despite it being the opening months of the Civil War.

But on July 9, while sealing some of 7-year-old daughter Edith’s newly clipped curls in wax, Fanny’s dress caught fire. Despite her husband’s attempts to put out the flames, she was horribly burned and died the next day. Longfellow carried the scars, both emotionally and physically, the rest of his life.

It would be months before he could even speak of Fanny’s death. In a letter to his brother, Longfellow wrote, “And now, of what we both are thinking I can write no word. God’s will be done.” To a visitor at Craigie House, who told Longfellow that he hoped the poet would “be able to bear his cross,” the poet replied, “Bear the cross, yes, but what if one is stretched upon it?”

On the first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote in his diary, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays … I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence.” Longfellow’s grief was later compounded when his oldest son, Charles, left home to join the Union Army without his father’s permission. On March 14, 1863, the poet received a letter from Charley, who wrote, “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer … I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country, and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”

That November, Longfellow received word that his boy had been wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. He and another son, Erny, traveled to Washington to bring Charles home and care for him. Longfellow expected his son would die, but he didn’t.  

By Christmas Day, 1863, Longfellow, perhaps inspired by a year in which the Union armies had won stunning victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and his son’s recovery, wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells.” Two of his stanzas directly referred to the war, yet even while the fighting still raged, and in fact, the slaughter increased, it was Longfellow’s oft-repeated lines that proved most touching: “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 1872, composer Jean Baptiste Calkin set the poem to music, removing the two verses that referenced the war, and the poem became the beloved hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  

The massive bells of the National Cathedral rang last Friday at 9:30 a.m. They pealed 28 times for the victims in Newtown, and, yes, even for the man who took their lives. They rang all across the country, and they rang in the churches of Newtown, as well. In ages past, the sounds of bells were used to call those of faith to pray for the departed dead, and so they should still be reminders for us to do the same. But like Longfellow’s words, they can also be heard as the peals of hope. Years later, Longfellow wrote “The Bells of San Blas,” which was published a few months after his death in 1882. Those words are fitting for us, too. He wrote: “The world rolls into light / It is daybreak everywhere.”

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