Words of Hope in this Season

Words often feel special this time of year.   The following poems were written during tragic personal circumstances of both authors.   Each still affirms hope.

The first was converted to a popular Christmas carol, sung often today. The other, translated from Russian, celebrates life’s fullness even as it is near ending.

An American Poet Writes in the Face of Personal Tragedy

The circumstances of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s writing I heard the bells on Christmas Day, are clothed in tragedy and personal depression.   His wife, Fanny, had been killed two years earlier in a fire started as she was sealing envelopes with hot wax when a flame caught her clothes.

He was too badly burned to attend her funeral, and wore a beard for the rest of his life to disguise the scars on his face from trying to put out the flames.

As a 29 year old widower, he had courted Fanny for seven years before they were married.  In their 18 years together, they had six children. For Longfellow, they were the happiest time of his life.

Two years later, in 1863, his oldest son Charlie enlisted in the Union army against Longfellow’s wishes. The poet was a strong abolitionist, but also a pacifist.  Charlie  wrote his father from DC where he had joined the 1st Massachusetts Artillery:

I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer, I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good God Bless you all.  

He caught fever in June and took leave that summer to heal at home.  He rejoined the fight.  In November At New Hope, Va., he was shot, the bullet went through him from back to shoulder, just nicking his spine.

Longfellow brought his son back from DC to their home in Cambridge to convalesce, arriving on December 8th.  Listening to church bells ringing at that time of year he was moved to write his poem (original words below) combing his anguish of war and hope for peace.

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.”

The carol version often omits the middle stances about the war in which “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men”.

But despondency is overcome with the affirmation that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep” and that ultimately there will be “…peace on earth, good will to men”.

The Burl Ives recording of the carol from 1966 is the shortened version omitting the Civil War context.

A Poem of Hope from Russia

Osip Mandelstam was a Russian poet and essayist who lived there during and after the revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. Born in 1891 he was educated in St. Petersburg, France and Germany.   In 1937 Mandelstam was arrested and sentenced to five years in a corrective-labour camp in the Soviet Far East. He died that year at a transit camp near Vladivostok.

He is considered one of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century. This poem was written in the camp shortly before he died.

And I Was Alive

Written by Osip Mandelstam

Translated by Christian Wiman

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird–cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self–shattering power,
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.

It is now. It is not.

(May 4, 1937)

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