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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1864

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Summary and Study Guide


“Christmas Bells” is a lyric poem composed by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1864, during his later career. The poem was first published in February 1865, in the children’s magazine Our Young Folks, then later that year, the poem was included in Longfellow’s Household Poems. In the poem, a Northern speaker contemplates the idea of Christian peace and contrasts it with the American Civil War (1861-1864). Scholars note how the poem’s composition was prompted by two personal events in Longfellow’s life: the death of his beloved wife Fanny in 1861 and the injury on the Civil War battlefield of his eldest son, Charles, in late 1863. Charles, a Union lieutenant, survived but the incident still spurred Longfellow’s writing of the poem; Longfellow composed it while he nursed his son back to health. An abolitionist, Longfellow disliked slavery and, while a pacifist in general, agreed specifically with the Union’s position. Aside from Longfellow’s longer narrative poems—“Paul Revere’s Ride” (1861), Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), and The Song of Hiawatha (1855)—“Christmas Bells” is his most widely known work, in part because its words were put to music and became the seasonal hymn “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” in 1872. This song would later be updated and sung by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and The Carpenters in the 20th century. The popular version is still sung today, however, it leaves out Stanzas 4-6, which comment on the loss of life that accrued in the Civil War.  

At the time of “Christmas Bells” writing, Longfellow was considered the preeminent poet of the United States. His verse, with its regular cadence and moral subject matter, was easily memorized and beloved. As the National Park Service’s Longfellow House’s historians note, “in the gentle hands of Longfellow, readers [were] introduced to […] domestic sympathies, noble aspirations, spiritual consolations, the glories of high culture—without ever being made to feel intimidated or inadequate” (Gartner, Matthew. “America’s Longfellow.” NPS.gov, 2002). Longfellow is also known for his musicality and his use of mythology and legends.

Poet Biography

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine (at that time a part of Massachusetts). His parents were Stephen Longfellow, a lawyer, and his wife, Zipah Wadsworth-Longfellow, whose father had been a general in the American Revolutionary War. Further back, Longfellow’s ancestors were among those who first came to America on the Mayflower.

Henry was the second of eight brothers and sisters and was named after his mother’s brother, who was a US Navy lieutenant who died at the Battle of Tripoli.

Longfellow was educated at the Portland Academy, starting at age six and proved to be gifted at languages, quickly mastering Latin. He published his first poem at age 13 in 1820 and by 15, he had enrolled at Bowdoin College. There, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne, his lifelong friend, and future author of The Scarlet Letter, among other novels.

Originally, Longfellow was to train as a lawyer, but upon graduation in 1825, was offered a job at Bowdoin as a professor of modern languages. To train him, the school sent Longfellow to Europe for three years. He learned French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German. Upon his return, he taught at Bowdoin and courted Mary Potter, a childhood friend, whom he married in 1831.

In 1834, Harvard offered Longfellow the Smith Professorship of Modern Language as long as he studied abroad for a year and learned Scandinavian languages. During this time, Longfellow worked on a travel book, Outré-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, which was later published. However, tragedy struck when the pregnant Mary Longfellow had a miscarriage that resulted in health complications. She died in Germany at age 22; Longfellow sent her body back to Boston for burial.

Bereft after the loss of his wife, Longfellow continued his trip to Switzerland. There, he met American Nathan Appleton and his family, whom he traveled with for a time. Eventually, he returned to Cambridge and his position at Harvard. A brief courtship of Appleton’s daughter, Frances “Fanny” Appleton, failed when she rejected Longfellow’s proposal. In 1839, Longfellow published his novel Hyperion, a thinly veiled account of their romance, much to Fanny’s embarrassment. This kept the couple apart for another few years.

Longfellow gained popular success with his next artistic efforts, both books of poetry. In 1841, he published his debut collection, Voices of the Night, and followed it with Ballads and Other Poems. From this point onward, he was one of the best-selling American authors and his popularity also spread to England and Europe. The next year, Longfellow returned to Germany for more language study. Upon his return to Harvard, he wrote the play The Spanish Student and tackled abolitionist themes in Poems on Slavery (1842).

Another meeting with Fanny in 1843 was more successful and the couple married within a year. Nathan Appleton purchased the Craige-Longfellow house for the couple as a wedding present and they resided there for the rest of their lives. Between 1844 and 1847, the Longfellows had three children: Charles (1844), Ernest (1845), and Fanny (1847), who only lived for a year and a half.

Meanwhile, Longfellow had a major career success when he published his epic poem, Evangeline, which went on to be one of the most celebrated American poems of the century. In 1849, he completed his last major prose work, Kavanagh, A Tale, and another collection of poems, The Seaside and the Fireside. By 1855, the Longfellow family welcomed three more daughters: Alice (1850), Edith (1853), and Anne (1855). The next year, Longfellow was able to retire from Harvard and work solely as a writer. In 1855, the epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, featuring Indigenous characters of the Ojibwe tribe, was published to tremendous success both in the United States and abroad. This was followed by The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems in 1858, also a bestseller. 

Tragedy struck in 1861, however, just as the United States became engaged in the Civil War (1861-1865). One evening at Longfellow house, Fanny’s dress caught on fire and was consumed in flames. Longfellow tried to douse them, but Fanny was burned so severely, she died the next day. Longfellow was devastated. He, too, had been burned on his hands and face, and grew his signature beard to cover the scars. His grief was then exacerbated by the trauma of the war. Longfellow, although he supported the Union cause, was upset to find his eldest son enlisted without his permission. Charles was badly injured in battle in late 1863, and was nursed for several months by Longfellow, who composed “Christmas Bells” during that time.

As was usual, Longfellow turned to writing to lessen his grieving. He completed his collection Tales of the Wayside Inn (1865) and began translating Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy with the help of several friends, including William Dean Howells, Oliver Wendall Holmes, and James Russell Lowell. Longfellow finished the three volume undertaking in 1867 to acclaim. In 1868-1869, he visited England and was received by Queen Victoria and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Shortly thereafter, he published The Divine Tragedy (1871) and The Book of Song (1872). In 1874, Longfellow edited and translated poems from all around the world, culminating in the 31-volume anthology Poems of Places.

In later years, he became reclusive and rarely left the house. However, in 1877, his 70th birthday was celebrated with parades, speeches, and the reading of his poetry. Shortly before his death, he published Ultima Thule (1880) and Ultima Thule-Part Two (1882). On March 24, 1882, Longfellow died surrounded by family and friends at his home. Posthumously, his last and unfinished epic, Michael Angelo, was published in 1883. In 1884, he was the first American to be represented by a commemorative bust in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner in London.

Poem text

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, Henry Wadsworth. “Christmas Bells.” 1863. Poets.org.


The poem begins in the middle of the action as the speaker hears traditional bells rung on December 25th to celebrate Christ’s birth. These bells peal out recognizable Christmas “carols” (Line 2). For the speaker, this recalls the ceremony of listening to carols during Yuletides past. Most of these songs have the theme of “peace on earth, good-will to men” (Lines 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35), a phrase which serves as each stanza’s refrain (repetition of a line or lines at the end of stanzas) as the speaker continually reflects on its meaning. The speaker, at first, takes comfort in the tenents of Christianity, which are widespread, believing their philosophy sound. The speaker imagines the Christian idea of peace reaching everyone and transcending earthly bounds. However, the speaker is then dismayed by the interruption of this divine idea. The fighting of the Civil War, which is made present by cannon-fire in the distance, particularly the “South” (Line 17) disrupts all peace. The speaker despairs that the conflict puts an end to peace and harmony, cracking the foundations of the country like a natural disaster. The speaker points out that hatred infusing the battle seems to ridicule the very Christian principles everyone seems to believe in. Although the speaker gives into despair, they listen again to the bells, which seem to bring the message that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep” (Line 32). This conflict will end, the speaker has faith, with those on the correct side of the battle winning the war.