Sunday 21 December 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: X is for Xmas

Merry Christmas for a second year from the Secret Victorianist! Last year, at Christmas, I treated you to a tricky literary quiz and suggested some nineteenth-century party games to try with friends and family. This year, I’m taking a look at a Christmas poem from the period – ‘Christmas Bells’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1864).

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.”

Longfellow’s poem begins in self-conscientiously typical festive fashion, referencing the cyclical nature of Christmases – each one resembling the last -, in the ‘familiar carols’ and regular bells of Christmas morning. There is reference to the longevity of Christmas in the use of words from the very first Christmas ‘carol’, the words of the angels to the shepherds in the Nativity story, ‘peace on earth, good-will to men!’.

More than this, the poet imagines that this cry has ‘rolled along’ continuously, as an ‘unbroken song’, since the birth of Christ, spreading around the world. Longfellow conveys this idea of global harmony, through use of singulars for the collective celebration - ‘A voice, a chime,/A chant sublime’.

The Angel Appearing Before the Shepherds, Thomas Buchanan Read
Soon however, this harmony is broken, for the poet and the world, by a disruptive force – the American Civil War. The sound of war (the ‘cannon’, emanating in the South) ‘drowns’ out this announcement of peace, suggesting the poet, and his countrymen’s, hopelessness. The domestically destructive nature of a civil war is suggested through the use of language suggestive of home for the American continent (‘It was as if an earthquake rent,/The hearth-stones of a continent’) and reference to the, explicitly Christian, ‘households’ now suffering from war, while founded on a theology of peace.

In the final two stanzas, we are given two reactions to this. The poet despairs (‘hate is strong’), only, apparently, to be answered by a message of hope about the continuance of God (‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep’), despite the current violence. However, the evenness of these stanzas (it’s not as if Longfellow introduces a second of celebration) means the poem does not end on an entirely convinced and joyous note. The sounds of peace and happiness, which begin the poem, do not return – the only comfort is the promise that they will. And it is even hinted, that this will come, not simply through the end of war, but through the military success of the ‘right’ side (‘The Wrong shall fail,/The Right prevail’).

What we have then, although this poem has subsequently been set to music and made a carol itself, is a poem, which, while it plays on the traditions of Christmas, and well-known themes of Christianity, speaks to a particular moment in nineteenth-century American history.

What should be ‘Y’ in my American Alphabet? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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