By all accounts, Newtown, Conn., is a lovely New England town, picture-perfect Norman Rockwell, with a flagpole and town square where residents gathered only a few weeks ago to light the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols. Perhaps they even sang, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Longfellow spent most of his life in a beautiful New England village — in 19th-century Cambridge, Mass. The parallels do not stop there. Longfellow also experienced personal tragedy that bore him down and left him bereft and shattered.
The magnitude of deaths in Newtown can do nothing less than haunt any human being capable of feeling and perception. But when all is said and done these killings are personal tragedies that must be confronted on an individual level. In this respect, the parallels between Longfellow’s wrestle with suffering and loss perhaps reflects that of the families and friends dealing with the inexplicable slaughter in Newtown, now confronting the loneliness and futility of those deaths.
Longfellow was the most popular poet of his day, widely read at home and abroad during his lifetime. So beloved was he that in 1884 he became the only non-British writer to have a bust commissioned and placed in Poet’s Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey. Adored by young people, when word spread that the tree he called a “spreading Chestnut tree” in his poem “The Village Blacksmith” had fallen down, a chair was commissioned and presented to Longfellow by the children of Cambridge.
These happy events, however, do not tell the story of Longfellow’s life.
A dreamy child, Longfellow loved books and yearned to be a literary talent. He attended Bowdoin College and afterward traveled to Europe to study modern languages. Upon his return he began teaching at Bowdoin and in 1831 married Mary Storer Potter. During a second period of study in Europe word reached him that his wife of three years had died after miscarrying their child. He returned stateside, grief-stricken, and took up a solitary existence until introduced to Frances Appleton. Frances became his muse and after seven years of refusals finally consented to marriage.
Together they had six children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Longfellow adored his wife and children and as he settled into family life he retired from teaching at Harvard University to devote himself to full-time writing.
Simultaneously, North-South tensions increased and Longfellow joined the abolition movement, watching with sadness the inevitable march toward the U.S. Civil War. In 1861 not only did that conflict explode, but personal tragedy shattered Longfellow. Toward the end of the year his beloved wife’s dress caught fire, possibly from a candle she was using to melt wax to seal her daughter’s locks in an envelope.
Longfellow was napping. As she ran screaming into his room he tried first to suffocate the flames with a small rug, then to smother them by taking Frances in his arms. The next morning, however, she died. Severely burned himself, and grief-stricken, Longfellow did not attend her funeral.
The first Christmas after her death Longfellow wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” On another occasion he described himself to a friend as “inwardly bleeding to death.” Nearly a year after Frances’ passing he penned, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”
His trials were not over. Within one year of Frances’ death Longfellow learned that his oldest son, Charles, a lieutenant in the Union Army, was fighting for his life in a military hospital having been wounded by a bullet that entered beneath his shoulder and damaged his spine. Already reeling, and now flung into the depths of further unmitigated grief, Longfellow confronted all he believed. The result was his poem, written Christmas Day 1864, “The Christmas Bells,” now memorialized in the Christmas song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
In that poem, Longfellow, in the midst of a horrific war and contemplating searing personal loss, affirmed:
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.
I 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.
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."
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!
(See "Hymns," No. 214.)
Lt. Charles Longfellow did not die — one of the Lord’s tender mercies — although Longfellow had no way of knowing this when he wrote his poem.
Longfellow’s bowed but unbroken faith in Jesus Christ gave him perspective and strength to carry on. It fortified him through the trials and vicissitudes of life.
A modern-day prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Gordon B. Hinckley, counseled on ways to find comfort and to help mitigate evil in the world:
“As you go forward with your vocations, as you assume responsibilities may you continue to carry in your hearts a quiet and solemn faith, a faith that will carry you through every storm and difficulty and bring peace to your hearts," he said during a devotional to Brigham Young Univeristy alumni in 2000. I hope the lessons of the second mile, of the prodigal son, of the good Samaritan, of the Son of God, who gave his life in a great offering of Atonement, will continue to motivate you.
“May the sunlight of faith ever warm your hearts," President Hinckley continued. "May you grow in strength and capacity as the years pass. May your outreach to others be as that of the good Samaritan. May the service which you render be fruitful for good in the lives of others. May prayer be a part of your daily activity. May reading (scripture) enhance your knowledge and increase your understanding. May you be true and faithful one to another, and may the years bring to you that peace which passeth all understanding, the peace which comes of following the precepts of the Master.”
Jesus Christ enjoined his disciples to return good for evil. The gospel of Jesus Christ provides the model. It is perhaps our best defense — and best offense — against evil in the world.
Kristine Frederickson writes on issue-oriented topics that affect members of the LDS Church worldwide in her column “LDS World."