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Longfellow

01/03/06 12:00AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) A recent speech by President Bush inspired commentator Jay Craven to look up an old poem - and he found a complicated view of the holiday wish for "peace on earth".

(CRAVEN) During the holidays, President Bush spoke from the Oval Office to discuss the status of the Iraq war and call for national perseverance. He closed his speech by offering some seasonal thoughts.

He said, quote, "And we remember the words of the Christmas carol, written during the Civil War, 'God is not dead, nor [does] He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on Earth, good-will to men.' "

President Bush's chosen passage comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Civil War era poem, "Christmas Bells" that was later adapted, in part, into a Christmas carol.

Given the optimism and certainty of the President's excerpt, it may be surprising to note that Longfellow's poem was known at the time for its complex emotions and desperate tone, inspired by the enormous toll from the war between the states.

Indeed, Longfellow had just been visited by a courier from Lincoln's Secretary of War, reporting that his oldest son, Charles, had been seriously injured by a battlefield bullet that pierced his neck and damaged his spine. Charles recovered, although his injury affected him long after. The gratitude Longfellow felt is noted in the poem's final stanza; the one cited in Bush's speech.

But the poem addresses a range of internal conflicts Longfellow felt, walking the snowy streets near his lavish Cambridge home while cannons thundered farther south.

Here's Longfellow's full poem, "Christmas Bells."

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."


War poetry reaches back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Longfellow wrote as an anxious parent, but many of the most powerful images come from soldiers themselves.

As Vermont welcomes troops freshly home from Iraq, may we embrace them, support them in their needs, and encourage their voices to be heard. The story of war is their story the personal anecdotes and struggles. And the heartfelt hope for peace.

This is Jay Craven from Peacham.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions. He spoke from our studio at the Fairbanks Museum in Saint Johnsbury.
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