For the Season: Longfellow’s poems of peace

Here are two poems by the 19th Century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who was, for the record, a Unitarian pacifist who reluctantly supported the Civil War as the only way of ending slavery. Before the war, in 1845, he, along with his wife, Fanny, visited the Springfield Armory where guns were built and stored for the U.S. armed forces. This visit inspired Longfellow’s pacifist poem “The Arsenal at Springfield” which was to prove prophetic with the start of the Civil War 15 years later.

After the tragic death of his wife and the wounding of his son, Charles, who had enlisted on the side of the North, Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells” that later was set to music and became a famous carol. The carol, however, dropped the two angriest stanzas relating to the Civil War (and all war) without which the final stanzas lose some of their anti-war punch. In the poem it’s clear that Longfellow is addressing both sides in the war when he speaks of “hate” and “wrong” and does not distinguish between the thundering cannons– all are “accursed.” Ironically, the sweetness of the carol drowns out the strong protest of the poem.

Nevertheless, the carol and the updated song (arranged by a group called the Casting Crowns) now available via YouTube remain quite moving. First comes the full poem below, and then what I think is the best of the many video versions I’ve seen of the song. (Something about the children, the church and the lack of professional glitz.)

After that, a sample of “The Arsenal at Springfield.”


Christmas Bells

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


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!”



And then there is Longfellow’s most famous, and most didactic, anti-war poem, “The Arsenal at Springfield” first published in 1845, long before the start of the Civil War. The Springfield Armory, in Massachusetts, is today a National Historic Site maintained by the National Park Service which provides, on its website, a complete copy of the poem along with background info on the poem’s composition and a helpful “critical overview” of the poet and his poem. These days, the precise rhyming and the didactic sentiment (not to mention the passionate exclamations ! ! !) of this poem would likely prevent its publication in the better journals and magazines. Still, as a lyrical statement of humane and religious protest, the poem cannot be dismissed. In fact, the first three stanzas make for a great, prophetic little poem even today:

This is the Arsenal. From floor to ceiling,
Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms;
But from their silent pipes no anthem pealing
Startles the villages with strange alarms.

Ah! what a sound will rise, how wild and dreary,
When the death-angel touches those swift keys!
What loud lament and dismal Miserere
Will mingle with their awful symphonies!

I hear even now the infinite fierce chorus,
The cries of agony, the endless groan,
Which, through the ages that have gone before us,
In long reverberations reach our own.

And in the next-to-last stanza we can see a foreshadowing of what was to become “Christmas Bells” :

 Down the dark future, through long generations,
The echoing sounds grow fainter and then cease;
And like a bell, with solemn, sweet vibrations,
I hear once more the voice of Christ say, “Peace!”

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