/ Barry York

A Lesson Heard in Longfellow’s Home

While in Cambridge on a trip to visit churches in Massachusetts and Rhode Island this past weekend, my host, Tom Fisher, took me on a walking tour of Harvard. Tom is a walking encyclopedia himself, and I immensely enjoyed hearing the history of the people, buildings, and sites on this sunny but brisk New England day. When he took me to look at the great nineteenth century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home, we thought we would only be able to look on from the outside as indoor tours seasonally halt in October.

Yet surprisingly, a friendly park ranger named Garrett told us the home was open for tours that day. Turns out an open house had been held the night before for special dignitaries, having been decorated for Christmas, and the staff had decided to give some tours to the public on Saturday. With an opportunity to both see inside this well preserved home and escape the cold for a bit, we eagerly accepted his invitation for a tour.

Incredibly, the home is like a small museum, as it is filled with all the period furnishings, paintings, and other possessions of the Longfellow’s. At times you do feel as you have stepped back in time as you walk through the rooms. With the emphasis on Christmas, the staff had brought out other items telling the story of this family. They had a Great Republic wooden sled displayed that Henry had given to his son Charley in 1854, with excerpts from his diary describing the fun the children had in the snow. A doll set of clothes from France the girls had received were set out on a table. Letters the kids had written to Santa were shown, one with the boys requesting soldier equipment. A reply was posted next to it, clearly written by guiding parents, telling them they could have toy soldiers but Santa did not want them pretending to be soldiers themselves.

As we paused in Longfellow’s book-lined study, Garrett told us the story behind one of his poems. In 1863, Longfellow was at a low point. His beloved wife Fanny, mother of their six children, had tragically perished two years earlier when the dress she was wearing caught on fire in the next room from his study. His attempts to put it out came too late, as she died of severe burns the next day. He himself lived with facial scars from this incident the rest of his life (which he covered with his familiar bushy beard). The Civil War was then in its bitter throes, casting a pall over the land. Indeed, Longfellow’s son Charley, the recipient of that sled, joined the Union Army without his father’ blessing and had recently suffered a serious injury. When Longfellow learned of his son’s misfortune, he traveled to Virginia to bring him back home to convalesce. As Christmas approached that year, Longfellow felt little desire to celebrate as in happier times.

However, as he often did, Longfellow turned to poetry to not only express himself but to find solace. That year he wrote the poem “Christmas Bells”. In it you can hear Longfellow’s pain and desire for restoration.

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.”

This poem is the basis for the familiar Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. References to the Civil War were removed, making it more generic in many ways. Now for the lesson I heard.

Standing in Longfellow's study hearing this story and listening to Garrett read this poem, you could identify with him as you imagined him sitting at his desk struggling through those dark times. And though Longfellow appears to have been more of a poet intrigued by Christian themes than a Christian poet, the call and direction of the poem is a solid one. For when the thundering sounds of this sin-cursed earth are heard around us, be they in the form of the darkness of war, personal tragedy, or other suffering, we should ring the gospel bell all the louder in our own hearts and the ears of those around us. The believer should proclaim to himself and to all who will listen of God’s presence and ultimate victory on this earth, first announced by angels at Christ’s birth and brought to fruition through his death and resurrection.

Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. President of RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness. Author - Hitting the Marks.

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