You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
About the Poem
The American poet Mary Oliver published “Wild Geese” in her seventh collection, Dream Work, which came out in 1986. The poem’s speaker urges readers to open themselves up to the beauty of nature. While people focus on their own struggles, the speaker points out, the natural world moves along effortlessly, free as a flock of geese passing overhead. The poem celebrates nature’s grandeur—and its ability to remind people that, after all, they’re part of something vast and meaningful.
The poem tells readers that they don’t have to be perfect, nor do they have to beat themselves up by wandering the desert as if paying for their sins. Instead, people only have to treat their bodies like the vulnerable animals that they are, simply letting them love whatever they want to love. Oliver offers to commiserate with readers about their suffering and unhappiness, but adds that while they talk about this, the world will continue like normal—sunshine and rain will move over the earth’s wide-open plains, tall trees, mountains, and rivers. No matter who you are or how lonely you are you can always lose yourself in the wonders of nature, since these wonders call out like the urgent squawks of wild geese—a sound that, again and again, puts people back in touch with their surroundings and makes them feel at home in the world.
The poem acknowledges that human beings are soft, vulnerable creatures prone to suffering and despair. At the same time, it frames the vast, awe-inspiring beauty of nature as a soothing and comforting force—something that reminds people that they’re part of something bigger and more meaningful than their everyday problems. “Wild Geese” seeks to put the pressures and difficulties of everyday life into perspective. The speaker acknowledges the burden people feel to be “good” and also notes that everyone inevitably experiences “despair” or loneliness from time to time. Beating yourself up for perceived mistakes or failings, the speaker implies, is a fruitless endeavor that drains people’s happiness.
About the Poet
Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019) was an American poet who won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is inspired by nature, rather than the human world, stemming from her lifelong passion for solitary walks in the wild. It is characterized by a sincere wonderment at the impact of natural imagery, conveyed in unadorned language.
On a visit to Austerlitz in the late 1950s, Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook, who became her partner for over forty years. In Our World, a book of Cook’s photos and journal excerpts Oliver compiled after Cook’s death, Oliver writes, “I took one look [at Cook] and fell, hook and tumble.” Cook was Oliver’s literary agent. They made their home largely in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived until Cook’s death in 2005, and where Oliver continued to live until relocating to Florida. Of Provincetown she recalled, “I too fell in love with the town, that marvelous convergence of land and water; Mediterranean light; fishermen who made their living by hard and difficult work from frighteningly small boats; and, both residents and sometime visitors, the many artists and writers. […] M. and I decided to stay.”
The World Is Too Much With Us By William Wordsworth
The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers, For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be A pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
In a comment on yesterday’s post, Roderick posted this poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth. The poem is an Italian (Petrarchan)sonnet, which is one of my favorite forms of poetry. I love how sonnets, whether Italian, Shakespearean, Spenserian, etc., conforms to a set of strict conventions. The structure adds a particular beauty to the poetic form.
“The World Is Too Much With Us” lends itself to yesterday’s post on the theme of niksen or doing nothing. In the early 19th century, Wordsworth wrote several sonnets criticizing what he perceived as “the decadent material cynicism of the time.” This 1802 poem is one of those works. It reflects his view that humanity must get in touch with nature to progress spiritually.
The metaphor “we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon” is also an oxymoron. Sordid suggests the worst aspects of human nature such as immorality, selfishness, and greed, while a boon is something that functions as a blessing or benefit. The contradiction between the meanings of the two words suggests that materialism is a destructive and corrupt blessing which the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) has produced. They use of the oxymoron emphasizes the tension between the good exterior (material goods bring pleasure and are a symbol of man’s progress) and the sordid truth (feeding on the worst aspects of humanity) behind materialism.
While the Industrial Revolution made many advances for civilization, it was also detrimental to the health of the planet. Today’s global warming and the danger that an industrialized world has on the environment makes Wordsworth poem even more meaningful today. We saw the effects of overpopulation and industrialization during this pandemic. If you remember when Italy was in a near complete lockdown, dolphins returned to the canals of Venice that had become remarkably clear with no traffic on their waterways, and wild animals walked through the streets of Florence and Milan. It showed just how much we have sacrificed nature for “progress.” Wordsworth saw the beginnings of this over 200 years ago, and he knew the detriment society has on the environment will proceed unchecked and relentless like the “winds that will be howling at all hours.”
Wordsworth gave a fatalistic view of the world: past and future. The words “late and soon” in the opening verse describe how the past and future are included in his characterization of mankind. The poet knew the potential of humanity’s “powers,” but feared it was clouded by the mentality of “getting and spending.” The “sordid boon” we have “given our hearts” is the materialistic progress of mankind. Wordsworth complains that “the world” is too overwhelming for us to appreciate it, and that people are so concerned about time and money that we use up all our energy. People want to accumulate material goods, so they see nothing in Nature that they can “own.” Humanity has sold its soul for material gain.
The verse “I, standing on this pleasant lea, have glimpses that would make me less forlorn,” reveals Wordsworth’s perception of himself in society: a visionary romantic more in touch with nature than his contemporaries. he would rather be a pagan who worships an outdated religion so that when he gazes out on the ocean (as he’s doing now), he might feel less sad. If he were a pagan, he would have glimpses of the great green meadows that would make him less dejected. He’d see wild mythological gods like a Proteus, who can take many shapes, and Triton, who can soothe the howling sea waves.
You are already asleep. I lower myself in next to you, my skin slightly numb with the restraint of habits, the patina of self, the black frost of outsideness, so that even unclothed it is a resilient chilly hardness, a superficially malleable, dead rubbery texture.
You are a mound of bedclothes, where the cat in sleep braces its paws against your calf through the blankets, and kneads each paw in turn.
Meanwhile and slowly I feel a is it my own warmth surfacing or the ferment of your whole body that in darkness beneath the cover is stealing bit by bit to break down that chill.
You turn and hold me tightly, do you know who I am or am I your mother or the nearest human being to hold on to in a dreamed pogrom.
What I, now loosened, sink into is an old big place, it is there already, for you are already there, and the cat got there before you, yet it is hard to locate. What is more, the place is not found but seeps from our touch in continuous creation, dark enclosing cocoon round ourselves alone, dark wide realm where we walk with everyone.
Valentine’s Day is coming up on Sunday, and in 2012, The Guardian asked poets for their favorite love poem. English poet Blake Morrison chose “Touch” by Thom Gunn. Here is what he said:
Love poems may be addressed to someone in particular but the “you” invariably remains unidentified or is represented only by a body part or item of dress – a sleeping head, a naked foot, an air-blue gown. Thom Gunn’s “Touch” is an extreme example of this. His lover is no more than a mound of bedclothes and embraces him in sleepy oblivion.
do you know who I am or am I your mother or the nearest human being
This feeling of anonymity is important: it links the two lovers to the rest of us: they’re part of a “realm where we walk with everyone.” But the poem is also intimate and domestic: here are two people (plus their cat) in their own bed – naked, cocooned, “ourselves alone.” Gunn was gay but his lover’s gender isn’t specified, since the theme is the inclusiveness of touch: the way it breaks down the “resilient chilly hardness” we all adopt to function in the outside world. The syllabic form enacts this dissolution or slippage, as the words seep gently from line to line, without the hardness of end stops. The word “love” isn’t used; the words “dark” and “darkness” recur three times. But the poem exudes warmth, familiarity and how it feels to lie naked with a fellow creature, whoever he or she may be.
In the bleak mid-winter Frosty wind made moan; Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, Snow on snow, In the bleak mid-winter Long ago.
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him Nor earth sustain, Heaven and earth shall flee away When He comes to reign: In the bleak mid-winter A stable-place sufficed The Lord God Almighty — Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim Worship night and day, A breastful of milk And a mangerful of hay; Enough for Him, whom Angels Fall down before, The ox and ass and camel Which adore.
Angels and Archangels May have gathered there, Cherubim and seraphim Thronged the air; But only His Mother In her maiden bliss Worshipped the Beloved With a kiss.
What can I give Him, Poor as I am? — If I were a Shepherd I would bring a lamb; If I were a Wise Man I would do my part, — Yet what I can I give Him, — Give my heart.
About the Poem
In verse one, Rossetti describes the physical circumstances of the Incarnation in Bethlehem, which refers to the birth of Jesus, when God became flesh and assumed a human nature. In verse two, Rossetti contrasts Christ’s first and second coming. The third verse dwells on Christ’s birth and describes the simple surroundings, in a humble stable and watched by beasts of burden. Rossetti achieves another contrast in the fourth verse, this time between the angels who were attending Christ at his birth and Mary’s ability to show Jesus physical affection, a kiss. The final verse shifts the description to a more introspective thought process.
While this is a Christmas poem, and was originally published, under the title “A Christmas Carol”, in the January 1872 issue of Scribner’s Monthly, Midwinter itself has two meanings: the Winter Solstice or the actual midpoint of winter. Many people think the midpoint of winter is today, Groundhog Day, but it actually varies. The 2021 Farmers’ Almanac says that it is Wednesday, February 3rd at 4:49 p.m. EST—the exact halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Either way, we have reached midwinter, so I thought this was an appropriate poem for today.
We are supposed to get hit pretty bad by a nor’easter today. It is the same storm that came through northern New Jersey, New York City, and Boston yesterday. I’m hoping it won’t be as bad here. Our local weather has said that while the prediction is 6”-12”, they believe it will be on the lower end of that scale.
if you didn’t mind the bible you’d surely mind the belt
This may be the shortest poem I have ever posted. I was looking at D. A. Powell’s poems and originally came across “The Fluffer Talks of Eternity.” While it is an interesting poem, I decided it just wasn’t what I was looking for in today’s poem. Then I came across “Bible Belt.” I was so intrigued by the simplicity of the poem but also its deep meaning. Considering that I was born in the buckle of the Bible Belt where in cities there is a church on nearly every street corner or in rural areas where you can hardly drive a mile without passing a church.
In a chat with the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, Powell talked about being born in the Bible Belt. In the interview he said, “I was born in the Bible Belt. My father’s family were all Bible belters. They belted us with the Bible. But despite their abuse of it, it’s a Good Book.” I think there are several ways you can take this poem, whether the second line means “They belted us with the Bible” or if the belt was used for corporal punishment, is up to the reader. You can hear Powell read the poem here.
About D. A. Powell
Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, and Cocktails was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. His next two books were Chronic(2009), which won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award;and Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (2012) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.
Noting Powell’s “open-secret sexiness, his confident collage effects and his grave subjects” in Cocktails, New York Times critic and Harvard professor Stephen Burt says, “No accessible poet of his generation is half as original, and no poet as original is this accessible.” As a teacher at Sonoma State, he noticed that most of his students’ poems were written to fit the demands of the page. His experiments with his students in writing on unexpected surfaces (such as candlesticks or rolls of toilet paper) led to his own breakthrough in “subverting the page:” he turned a legal pad sideways and wrote the first poem for Tea. Powell explains that “by pulling the line longer, stretching it into a longer breath, I was giving a little bit more life to some people who had very short lives.” Powell has also taught at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of San Francisco.
Of History and Hope 1997 inaugural poem by Miller Williams
We have memorized America, how it was born and who we have been and where. In ceremonies and silence we say the words, telling the stories, singing the old songs. We like the places they take us. Mostly we do. The great and all the anonymous dead are there. We know the sound of all the sounds we brought. The rich taste of it is on our tongues. But where are we going to be, and why, and who? The disenfranchised dead want to know. We mean to be the people we meant to be, to keep on going where we meant to go. But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how except in the minds of those who will call it Now? The children. The children. And how does our garden grow? With waving hands — oh, rarely in a row — and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow. Who were many people coming together cannot become one people falling apart. Who dreamed for every child an even chance cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not. Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head cannot let chaos make its way to the heart. Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot. We know what we have done and what we have said, and how we have grown, degree by slow degree, believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become — just and compassionate, equal, able, and free. All this in the hands of children, eyes already set on a land we never can visit — it isn’t there yet — but looking through their eyes, we can see what our long gift to them may come to be. If we can truly remember, they will not forget.
In honor of Joe Biden’s inauguration tomorrow, I wanted to post a poem read at the inauguration of another Democratic president. In 1997, Miller Williams, a poet and the father of the singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, was honored as the country’s third inaugural poet, reading his poem “Of History and Hope” at the start of former President Bill Clinton’s second term.
Williams published, edited, and translated over thirty books. He was born in Hoxie, Arkansas, in 1930, the son of a Methodist clergyman and civil rights activist. Miller’s work is known for its gritty realism as much as for its musicality. Equally comfortable in formal and free verse, Williams wrote poems grounded in the material of American life, frequently using dialogue and dramatic monologue to capture the pitch and tone of American voices.
As a child, Miller Williams seemed to be more gifted in science than in writing. Though he entered college as a double major in English and foreign languages, an aptitude test revealed “absolutely no aptitude in the handling of words,” Miller said in interviews during his lifetime. He changed his major to hard sciences to avoid “embarrassing my parents.” Williams earned a BS in biology from Arkansas State University and an MS in zoology from the University of Arkansas. He taught science at the college level for many years before securing a job in the English department at Louisiana State University, partly with his friend Flannery O’Connor’s help. In an interview, Miller told the story: “We became dear friends, and in 1961, LSU advertised for a poet to teach in their writing program. Though I had only had three hours of freshman English formally, she saw the ad and, without mentioning it to me, wrote them and said the person you want teaches biology at Wesleyan College. They couldn’t believe that, of course, but they couldn’t ignore Flannery O’Connor. So they sent me word that said, ‘Would you send us some of your work?’ And I did.” Williams’s appointment began a long career in academia: as a professor at Loyola University New Orleans, he founded the New Orleans Review; while at the University of Arkansas, where he taught until his retirement in 2003, he founded the University of Arkansas Press, serving as director for twenty years. He also founded the MFA in Translation at the University of Arkansas. A selection of Miller Williams’ papers is archived in the Special Collections at the University of Arkansas library.
Williams collaborated with his daughter Lucinda, and he was compared to another great country musician with the same last name. According to Williams, “One of the best things that has ever been said about my work was said by a critic who wrote that ‘Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.’” Williams died on January 1, 2015, of Alzheimer’s disease. Sixty-two years earlier, Hank Williams died on his way from Montgomery to a New Year’s Day concert in Canton, Ohio.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening By Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year. He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
About the Poem:
Robert Frost wrote the poem in June 1922 at his house in Shaftsbury, Vermont. He had been up the entire night writing the long poem “New Hampshire” and had finally finished when he realized morning had come. He went out to view the sunrise and suddenly got the idea for “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” He wrote the new poem “about the snowy evening and the little horse as if I’d had a hallucination” in just “a few minutes without strain.”
Readers often find the poem somewhat dark, albeit beautiful, and many assume it has something to do with death (or at least fatigue with life). When asked if the poem had anything to do with death or suicide, Frost denied it, preferring to keep everyone guessing by merely saying “No.” However, many scholars still think that the poem could be construed as a dream-like tale of someone passing away or saying a final goodbye and has often been used as such.
In the early morning of November 23, 1963, Sid Davis of Westinghouse Broadcasting reported the arrival of President John F. Kennedy’s casket at the White House. Since Frost was one of the President’s favorite poets, Davis concluded his report with a passage from this poem but was overcome with emotion as he signed off. Also, at the funeral of former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, on October 3, 2000, his eldest son, current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, rephrased the last stanza of this poem in his eulogy: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. He has kept his promises and earned his sleep.”
In many ways, it’s a poem that trusts the reader. The words, sounds, and images appeal to all—from those who regard it as no more than a serene winter scene featuring snowy woods, a horse, and a rider to those who feel a morose shudder when they read the final two lines. This ambiguity makes the poem a classic and keeps it relevant so many years after its publication. The narrative sets up a subtle tension between the timeless attraction of the lovely woods and the pressing obligations of the present moment.
The night is darkening round me, The wild winds coldly blow; But a tyrant spell has bound me And I cannot, cannot go. The giant trees are bending Their bare boughs weighed with snow. And the storm is fast descending, And yet I cannot go. Clouds beyond clouds above me, Wastes beyond wastes below; But nothing drear can move me; I will not, cannot go.
Cento Between the Ending and the End By Cameron Awkward-Rich
Sometimes you don’t die
when you’re supposed to
& now I have a choice
repair a world or build
a new one inside my body
a white door opens
into a place queerly brimming
gold light so velvet-gold
it is like the world
when I call out
all my friends are there
everyone we love
is still alive gathered
at the lakeside
my honeyed kin
beneath the sky
a garden blue stalks
white buds the moon’s
marble glow the fire
distant & flickering
the body whole bright-
with the hours
of the day beautiful
nameless planet. Oh
friends, my friends—
bloom how you must, wild
until we are free.
About This Poem
“‘Cento Between the Ending and the End’ is composed of language scavenged from the works of Justin Phillip Reed, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Fatimah Asghar, Kaveh Akbar, sam sax, Ari Banias, C. Bain, Oliver Bendorf, Hanif Abdurraqib, Safia Elhillo, Danez Smith, Ocean Vuong, Franny Choi, Lucille Clifton, and Nate Marshall. All of whom have made for me a world and for whom I wish the world.”—Cameron Awkward-Rich
Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. He is a Cave Canem fellow, a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, and his second collection of poetry, Dispatch, was published by Persea Books in December 2019.
Also a critic, Cameron earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Currently, he is working on a book about maladjustment in trans literature and theory.
Just a quick FYI: “Cento” is a piece of writing, especially a poem, composed wholly of quotations from the works of other authors. (I did not know this until I looked it up.)
Christmas Bells By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – 1807-1882
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.”
In 1861, two years before writing this poem, Longfellow’s personal peace was shaken when his second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was fatally burned in an accidental fire. Then in 1863, during the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union Army without his father’s blessing. Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer,” he wrote. “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country, and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.” Charles was soon appointed as a lieutenant but, in November, he was severely wounded in the Battle of Mine Run. Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished.
Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863. “Christmas Bells” was first published in February 1865, in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine published by Ticknor and Fields. References to the Civil War are prevalent in some of the verses that are not commonly sung. The refrain “peace on Earth, goodwill to men” is a reference to the King James Version of Luke 2:14.
The spirit of Christmas has a tendency to get lost in the hustle and bustle of the holidays. This year, as we speed towards a decidedly topsy-turvy Christmas amidst the worsening coronavirus pandemic, it’s more important than ever to reflect on the true meaning of the season. Like Longfellow in 1863, we are currently in our own war of sorts. We are in a war against COVID-19, but the vaccine is a powerful weapon against it. However, the main war we are fighting is that against Trumpism. Trump’s leadership of hatred has spawned a cultural war like nothing we have seen. Yes, there are comparisons in American history, but nothing come to the level at which Trump has politicized every aspect of American life. The divisiveness he has caused in this country has pitted families against one another, as the Civil War did 160 year ago. The 1860 election was another election that pitted half the country against one another. In 1860, though, the South did not see Abraham Lincoln as a candidate who won a fraudulent election, but as someone who stood for something they were against and feared it would destroy their way of life. Trump has pushed his claims of a fraudulent election and has played on those who fear Democrats will destroy their way of life. Trump supporters are complacent (at best) with their racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. At worst, they are openly racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic. The combinations of complacency toward hatred and open support of hatred are mixed, but all Trump supporters follow the hatred espoused by Trump to some extent.
With 90 percent of Congressional Republicans refusing to acknowledge Trump’s defeat, they are actively destroying the fabrics of democracy and the Constitution they swore to uphold. Republicans who are not speaking out against Trump may think they are not supporting him, but their silence is support. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Sadly, with those who supported Trump and especially those who have supported his anti-scientific views about the pandemic, it is our friends and family who supported him who hurt us the most. Elie Wiesel, the author of Night, probably said it best, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
“Christmas Bells” tells of Longfellow’s despair, upon hearing Christmas bells during the American Civil War, that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men”. The carol concludes with the bells carrying renewed hope for peace among men. I live next door to an Episcopal church and a few doors down across the street is the Methodist church. Both churches ring their bells on Sunday mornings calling worshipers to service, and I assume they do the same on Christmas Day, though I have never been here to hear it. On Friday, I expect to hear their bells, and I will think of the four years of a national nightmare that has been the Trump presidency. I will think on the year of hardships suffered because a pandemic raged unchecked in our country. I will think of the fact that because of the mismanagement of the pandemic, I am not home with my family having Christmas breakfast that morning and watching my niece and nephew play with the toys Santa brought them. However, I hope that like Longfellow, I will remember:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
In 1872, the poem was first set to music as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, used the poem in a processional accompanied with a melody “Waltham” that he previously used as early as 1848. The Calkin version of the carol was long the standard. Less commonly, the poem has also been set to Joseph Mainzer’s 1845 composition “Mainzer.” In the 20th century, Paul Mickelson recorded the John Baptiste Calkin version as an instrumental on the album “Christmas Bells” in 1955, and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded a version with lyrics in 1957. Since the middle of the 20th century, the poem has been set to other musical arrangements, most notably in 1956 by Johnny Marks. Bing Crosby recorded the song on October 3, 1956, using Marks’s melody and verses 1, 2, 6, 7. With Christmas just days away, I find more significance in Longfellow’s poem and the nearly 60-year-old song adaptation. Though decades have passed since the powerful poem was translated into song, the message remains one that we should all take to heart. It can give us hope. I prefer the Burl Ives version over the Bing Crosby one.
The Trump presidency will be over at noon on January 20, 2021. The Biden administration can then begin a recovery and reconstruction of the United States. Democracy and law and order will be restored. A vaccine is being distributed, and soon we can put this year of 2020 behind us. As Elizabeth II said in 1992, this “is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.” There is a lot to look forward to in 2021, but it will take a lot of work and cooperation among Americans. I pray that the damage done by the Trump presidency is not too significant to repair. I also pray that Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock win the Senate runoff election in Georgia because it will make the recovery of American democracy go much smoother because we will be able to get rid of a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell.
Let us remember on this Christmas Luke 2:10-11, when the angel said to the shepherds, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you.” Then a multitude of the heavenly host proclaimed saying:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
— Luke 2:14
Let the Glory of God be a sign to us that better days are ahead.