“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!”
So begins “Christmas Bells,” a poem written 151 Christmases ago by Maine’s most celebrated bard, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Then living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Portland-born poet was not in a festive mood when he penned the piece.
His oldest son, Charles, had run away from home and joined the Union army, against his father’s wishes, in the late winter of 1863. On Dec. 1 of that year, the poet received a telegram informing him that Charles had been seriously wounded in battle. A Confederate bullet had entered one shoulder and exited beneath the other, nicking his spine on the way through. A surgeon told Longfellow his 19-year-old son might never walk again.
Charles survived, and was spared paralysis, but the incident deeply troubled Longfellow at a time when he was still unhinged by the loss of his second wife, Fanny, who’d perished two years earlier from burns suffered when her dress accidentally caught fire in their home. (The poet had tried to save his wife’s life by smothering the fire with his body; the flames scorched his face, compelling him to grow his iconic beard.)
So the poem turns dark in its fourth stanza, the carols “drowned” by the sound of cannon fire from the South. In the sixth stanza, the poet bows his head in despair: “‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; / ‘For hate is strong / And mocks the song / Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’”
But in the final lines, the bells ring louder and deeper, proclaiming, “‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; / The Wrong shall fail, / The Right prevail, / With peace on earth, good-will to men.’”
The poem was set to music about a decade later and, retitled “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” became a popular carol itself. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash are among those who’ve recorded versions of it. Four decades ago, Alex Chilton of the fabled rock band Big Star, then going through his own crack-up, inserted the poem’s third- and second-to-last lines into his unexpectedly wonderful song “Jesus Christ,” which is how I first heard them.
I wish I could find comfort in those words, but the political events of this holiday season have, for the most part, only deepened my cynical pessimism about the fate of our country and our world.
I’m more disappointed than ever in the two senators representing us in Washington. Are we supposed to pat Susan Collins and Angus King on their backs for supporting the release of a heavily redacted 524-page summary of the over 6,000-page “torture report?” Not when neither has voiced support for a full investigation of the CIA’s human-rights abuses, including public identification and prosecution of everyone responsible, whether they were in the White House or down in the dungeons.
As Frank Zappa ominously observed, “The Torture Never Stops,” and indeed it won’t stop until future torturers fear the prospect of facing justice.
Collins and King further disgraced themselves by voting for the latest National Defense Authorization Act, which, at $585 billion, accounts for roughly half of the so-called “Cromnibus” federal spending package assembled in secret and rushed to a vote with almost no debate or public scrutiny. The NDAA provides $64 billion in war funding next year for a country that’s supposedly no longer at war. Among the relatively few cuts are several aimed squarely at the soldiers engaged in these peacetime conflicts, including decreased military-housing allowances and a near halving of a previously announced 1.8 percent pay raise.
In press releases, our senators trumpeted the millions in the bill earmarked for war-machine manufacturers in Maine. King went further, boasting of an amendment he wrote that requires the Director of Intelligence to report on efforts to reduce our spy agencies’ administrative costs — e.g., flying coach and buying fewer “extraneous promotional items, such as plaques, clothing, and commemorative items.” One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Unbeliever that I am, it was a man of God who provided the lone ray of hope for me this season. Pope Francis’ role brokering the détente between our country and Cuba is an inspiring example of faith in action, of the Right prevailing over the Wrong — an occasion to ring bells of joy.
Collins’ response was tepid. Apparently without irony, she called for more scrutiny of Cuba’s human-rights abuses.
As far as I can tell, King’s been silent as the night.