In July of 1861, Fannie Elizabeth Appleton, the wife of the famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, tragically died. She had been sealing envelopes with hot wax which sparked a flame which caught her dress on fire. Henry tried to extinguish the flames, first with a rug and then with his own body, but Fannie had already suffered severe burns. She died the next morning. Henry was also badly burned, so much that he was unable to attend his wife’s funeral. Because of his burns, he stopped shaving and grew a beard that became his trademark. Henry’s grief was so overwhelming that he believed he was going to end up in an asylum.
Two years later, in March of 1863, Henry’s 18 year old son Charles Appleton Longfellow secretly boarded a train in Cambridge, Massachusetts that was bound for Washington D.C. He enlisted in the Union Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.
On December 1st of that same year, Henry was dining alone at his home when he received a telegram with the news that his son Charles had been severely wounded four days earlier in the battle of the Mine Run Campaign. Charley, as he was called, had been shot through the left shoulder. He avoided paralysis by less than an inch. Henry and his Charley’s younger brother Ernest traveled to Washington D.C. where they learned that, although serious, Charley’s wounds were not as serious as they had initially been told.
Three weeks later, on Christmas Day, 1863, Henry was overwhelmed by loss. He was a 57 year old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly killed or paralyzed as he fought for a country that was at war with itself. To capture the way he felt, Henry wrote a poem he titled I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. That day, he had heard the Christmas bells ringing in Cambridge and he had listened as people sang “peace on earth.” However, the world he observed was filled with injustice and violence that mocked the truthfulness of the optimistic outlook. The theme continues throughout the poem, finally leading the listener to a settlement of confident hope that even in the midst of bleak despair, that God is alive and faithful and that His righteousness will prevail.
Click here to hear an interesting arrangement of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Charlene Closshey.
*Image courtesy of Aaron Burden and Unsplash