Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Peace on earth–but when?

by Jim Heffernan

Note: Here's a Christmas column I wrote two years ago. It seems to have continued relevance in today's world. We can only hope....  

This is the 34th Christmas that I have been writing a column in this newspaper. I’ve about run out of my own Christmas memories to share with readers – childhood recollections of celebrations with family members long gone, or memories of Sunday school holiday programs enacting the nativity (always a shepherd, never a wise man).

So today, Christmas Eve 2006, I share this space with an old fellow who knew a little something about Christmas – actually the meaning of Christmas. Most readers recognize his name – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – as one of America’s revered poets of the 19th century, but very much out of fashion today.

One of his poems, a series of reflections on peace on Earth, has been set to music with at least two melodies familiar to dedicated carolers. Longfellow has been dead as a doornail for 124 years, so he qualifies as a sort of ghost of Christmas past whose verses reflect all too well Christmas present and some hope for Christmases yet to come -- ideas so nobly advanced by one of Longfellow’s English contemporaries, Charles Dickens.

What follows are Longfellow’s rhymed words in italics, and some prose comments from me in regular type after each verse.

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.

Last week I heard a radio interview with a stateside U.S. Army officer of field-grade rank who spent last Christmas in Iraq. He said spending the holiday in a war zone has forever altered his attitude toward Christmas. “Peace on Earth good will toward men” means nothing to him anymore, he said on National Public Radio.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had roll’d along,
Th’unbroken song,
Of peace on Earth good will to men.

“Belfries of all Christendom…” Wow, what a powerful image -- thousands of church steeples, their bells resounding in unison. I grew up in a home midway between two long-gone Duluth Catholic churches – St. Clements and Sts. Peter and Paul -- with belfries and bells that rang out twice a day, noon and evening, throughout the year. What a wonderful, hopeful sound. Broken now. Years after Longfellow’s day, during World War II, a lot of the bells from belfries overseas were melted down to make cannons, which brings us, with trepidation, to the next verse:

And in despair I bow’d 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.”

A couple of headlines in the New York Times caught my eye last week. “Attacks in Iraq at record level, Pentagon finds,” read one; “President wants to increase size of armed forces,” read another. It’s the same every day in that and other papers, with no end in sight. The words in that verse are, perhaps, the most prescient of Longfellow’s thoughts. Would that these next were:

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.”

We can only hope.

origninally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on December 24, 2006


Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Hope is where it's at. peace.

Jim Heffernan said...

Let's hope for good things in 2009. Jim