Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One of the most significant events that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would have experienced during his lifetime was the severe division of his home country, in the form of the American Civil War. Longfellow himself supported the abolitionist cause, but reportedly wished for peace above all in his home. During the war, Charles Longfellow, Henry Longfellow’s son, fought and was injured, an event which prompted Longfellow to write one of his most remembered poems: Christmas Bells, which would later become the basis for the Christmas carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Throughout the poem, Longfellow contrasts Christmas with the idea of the war in a, honest and memorable way that helps to take the reader into the mind of this troubled father and American during that terrible war.


Christmas Bells Analysis

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! 

The pattern for Christmas Bells is an interesting one: each verse is five lines long, and rhymes in an AABBC pattern, where the “A” lines are eight syllables, and the “B” lines are exactly half of that. The final line of each verse is the same each time, emphasized heavily throughout, despite the varying nature of each verse. In the first verse, the speaker listens to church bells chiming on Christmas Day, creating music that sings of peace and goodwill

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! 

The second verse reflects on the long-lasting aspect of the Christian faith and its worship for Christmas day; all day long, the bell towers (or belfries) have been ringing out the same song, peace and goodwill. This verse actually breaks the usual pattern slightly; “The unbroken song” is five syllables rather than four, a necessary concession to accommodate the word “unbroken” into the verse. Ultimately, this is an intelligent choice by Longfellow, because the word “unbroken” stands out as the central idea of this part of the story. For all of Christmas Day, this song has gone on, and since the dawn of Christianity, the religion has proposed a loving worldview. For nearly two thousand years (keeping in mind that this poem was written before the twentieth century), the religion has endured, singing the same unbroken song. This age and durability are central to this idea and is reflected in the repetition of the final line in each verse.

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! 

This third verse is a pretty straightforward one, reflecting on the way the world changes. The brief repetition of the “-ing” suffix in the first line adds a sense of ringing and singing itself, and the speaker’s description of the church’s song as being sublime speaks to their own beliefs and opinions. Thus far, they’ve considered the song in a number of different ways, but have yet to offer an opinion on it — but clearly, peace is very important to the listener, no matter how much the world changes from night into day. Using these simple images, Longfellow is able to condense metaphors for great change into his short verses and convey important ideas in small ways.

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! 

The harsh language used in the first two lines of this verse strongly set it apart from its predecessors. Words such as “accursed” and “thundered” entirely break the pattern of the story thus far, which is, of course, their purpose in being. Longfellow still concludes this verse with the prayer for peace and goodwill, but the reader is almost certainly distracted by the sudden appearance of war and cannon fire, which drowns out the carols both in the poem narrative, and to the reader in the poem. The goodwill is still present, but it is hardly the focus of this verse, which is a sharp contrast from its previous mentions.

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! 

The sound of cannons feels to the speaker like an earthquake, shaking the foundations of their warmth and joy. The stones that make up their hearth, their source of warmth, have been shattered, which is a likely metaphor for their Christmas spirit dissolving entirely. The previous verse specifies that the cannons are thundering in the South, which, capitalized, refers to the elements of the United States that fought against the abolitionist cause during their civil war. What this means for the story is that there are no nearby cannons for the speaker — rather, it is the memory or reminder of war that dampens their spirits and takes away the fact that they were born during a time of peace and goodwill. The idea that war is inescapable, regardless of where the battlefield lies is a powerful message for this poem.

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!” 

The second-to-last verse of the poem sees the speaker give in to their despair. This verse is largely one of dialogue, so its meaning is very straightforward — remembering the war being waged during Christmastime, the speaker concludes that there is no peace, nor goodwill to be found in the world. This is the lowest point of the poem thus far, the darkest bit of the story. The word “despair” even stands out, contrasting as it does with that same closing line about peace and goodwill across the world.

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!”

The conclusion of Christmas Bells is, appropriately, marked by Christmas bells, which are ringing their same song of Christmas joy. The speaker, wrapped up in their despair, imagines that those bells are speaking a kind of reply; they say that in the end, peace and goodwill will prevail over war and despair, and that God continues to watch over the world. It is designed an opposite to the verse that precedes it and concludes the poem on a hopeful — and familiar — note.

And yet, it is a fairly inconclusive ending to the story. We see the character that narrates the poem declare that there is no peace in the world, and then the Christmas song responds that even if that is true, there one day will be peace again. There is no moment where the speaker changes their mind or rejects the response they’ve been given; the poem simply ends mid-debate.

At the time Christmas Bells was written, the outcome of the American Civil War was not yet known. Whether or not there would be peace and goodwill in the United States was a question without answer, and would have weighed heavily on the minds of a great many people. For Longfellow, peace was what was most important, and his poem strongly reflects that feeling — but he doesn’t know that it will, in time, come. So he ended his work inconclusively, but hopefully, because it was the outcome he most desired, the conclusion he wanted to see both in his poetry and in the real world. It is hardly surprising that this poem caught on, because it was more than likely capable of reflecting the sentiments of many who thought the same way, but could do nothing more than wait and pray for goodwill and peace to return to their world.

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