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Featured Poem: Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Written by jen, 7th December 2009

So it is… the final month of the year has arrived. Twinkly lights and decorations are rapidly gracing the city streets and the windows of many a home; shoppers rush about, as frantic as turkeys who instinctively know their existence is at stake, to stock up on food and presents; modern day carols such as 'Fairytale of New York' and 'All I Want For Christmas Is You' are played on repeat until they’re firmly imprinted on our brains. And as the Penny Readings, The Reader Organisation’s annual festive event, has just taken place, it’s official – the countdown to Christmas has well and truly begun.

The festive season means different things to different people. For those with religious faith it’s about celebrating the birth of Christ. For the cynics amongst us (or should they be called Scrooges?) it’s an over-commercialised and overblown occasion which does little else but to leave people in debt until the next year. For me, it’s a time of wide-eyed wonder, nostalgia, tradition and genuine warmth (of the spirit, if not the body). Above everything it’s a time best spent in the company of those most cherished, whether that be lazing on the sofa after a generous Christmas dinner or dancing around the Christmas tree. Yet it’s important to be mindful that while battles are being fought, be it personal or on an international scale, that Christmas cannot be this way for everyone and despite all the goodwill and cheer, the unfortunate things in life still persist.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 'Christmas Bells' acknowledges this as it was written well into the American Civil War, which makes its repeated declarations of the well-known seasonal phrases ‘peace on earth’ and ‘good-will to all men’ especially wished for. In the fourth and fifth stanzas, the oppressive presence of war is particularly apparent and threatens to overshadow the festive spirit as well as any faith Longfellow has. However the bells endure, their sound is not drowned out – melody appears a motif of the poem, with its references to carols, songs, voices and chants coupled with its general sing-song quality when read aloud (evidenced by the fact it is also sung as a Christmas carol). The seasonal bells are not only something pleasant to hear but also ring out in defiance, with hope for the future. And for all the hullabaloo, essentially that is what Christmas is all about – hope and eternal optimism.

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!

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!’

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

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