Wild and Sweet the Words Repeat

June 29, 2018

In his poem “Our Earth We Now Lament to See” [United Methodist Hymnal #449], written in 1758, Charles Wesley describes the Earth he sees as

“one wide-extended field of blood,

where men like fiends each other tear

in all the hellish rage of war.”

When I come across this poem in our hymnal’s ‘social holiness’ section, I’m always taken aback.  No wonder it’s not set to music!  But I’m glad we kept it.

In 1864, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow surveys a similar field of blood. The American civil war has wrought inconceivable carnage and misery. Longfellow is grieving personal tragedies as well. So no wonder the ‘old familiar carols’  ring hollow for him. He appreciates the ‘chant sublime.’ But the words stick. Like a good psalmist, he admits his despair, and gives evidence for it. And then he chooses hope. What a very human poem! And how human of most churches to omit stanzas 5 and 6 from their hymnals.  True, seven verses are a lot to ask of a congregation.   But perhaps a bit longer reflection on the shadow side of Christmas would not be amiss. To my mind and personal experience, the wound needs to be named and named thoroughly before healing can happen.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

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.

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 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.

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.”


Christmas bells on Evangeline.  Evangeline–one of Longfellow’s best-known poems, also my street for 34 years. ‘Evangel’ means bringer of good news.  Remember though, much as we crave good news, we walk on two feet:  Joy and Sorrow.  It wouldn’t work very well to hop on one foot all the time. Or so I’ve heard.


Author: Phoebe Dishman

Phoebe H. Dishman was born and raised in Beaumont, Texas. She is a wife, mother, and grandmother. An essayist and poet, she teaches adult Sunday school, compiles a monthly prayer calendar, edits the Big Thicket Association quarterly bulletin, and keeps a keen eye and ear open for birds.

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