Poetry News

How Longfellow's 'Christmas Bells' became 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'

By Harriet Staff


Check out this HuffPo piece about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Christmas Bells", which became the popular carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."

A sample:

Longfellow crafted this poem some months before Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Within the poem, however, he captures the years of despair from the horrors of the American Civil War and, beyond that, to a future that was filled with hope.

The depth and breadth of these words can only also be understood within the context of Longfellow's own life. On July 13, 1843 Henry married Frances. They settled down in the historic Craigie House overlooking the Charles River in Cambridge, MA where they soon had five children.

1861 was a year of personal and national tragedy for Longfellow and his family. On April 12, 1861 the opening shots of the American Civil War were fired and on July 10 Fanny Longfellow was fatally burned in an accident in the library of Craigie House.

After trimming some of their seven year old Edith's curls, Fanny decided to preserve the clippings in sealing wax. Melting a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few drops fell unnoticed upon her dress. But when a gust of wind came through an open window, the hot wax ignited the light material of her dress--completely wrapping her in flames. To protect her children, she ran into Henry's study and together they tried frantically to put out the flames.

Henry severely burned his face, arms, and hands. The next morning, Fanny died. Too ill from his burns and grief, Henry did not attend her funeral. Later, he grew his trademark full beard because of his inability to shave after the tragedy.

The first Christmas after Fanny's death, Longfellow wrote, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." A year after the incident he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace." Longfellow's journal entry for December 1862 reads, "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."

Uplifting stuff. Full article here.

Originally Published: December 21st, 2012