Excerpt from “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. Christmas Stories”by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s Program Note.
I am sitting at my desk in one of the most beautiful rooms on Earth, the Blue
Room. Here on my well laden shelves reside the thoughts of generations of
my peers and colleagues through all the lands and ages, each one necessary
for the value and impact of the whole. We gather here, all of us, to refresh
ourselves in the peace and serenity of this place, for I insist that here peace
and serenity, diversity and tolerance shall reign supreme.
On this day, Christmas Eve in the morning, we are thinking of our dear friend
and Cambridge neighbor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). I can tell you a
great deal about this great lyric poet of the Great Republic. A thousand miles from
where his swiftly moving pen enlivened each page, in prairie Illinois, he brought me,
through the magic in my young mother’s voice to “the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the
shining Big-Sea-Water,” thence to “the wigwam of Nokomis, daughter of the Moon,
She and Longfellow, reader and author, are so intertwined in my mind, that
remembering the one necessarily reminds me of the other. They are irresistible together.
They took me on Paul Revere’s epic ride of ’75 into eternity… a determined
patriot with freedom enough for all a world distressed in his saddlebags… and
they made me feel the glistening muscles and smell the acrid sweat of the village
blacksmith whose shop I can walk to, though the chestnut tree is sadly gone in
fact; gladly to exist forever thanks to the poet who saw a story in the bellows
constantly at work at the forge, creating a nation more strong and notable
every single day.
Longfellow was the joyous poet of this blacksmith… this forge… this great nation
abuilding from sea to shining sea, never ceasing, never tiring, never flagging,
never quitting, never quavering, the whole chronicled by Longfellow, derided as
the poet of the masses by certain envious literati, a criticism he wore with panache
and festivity… and the respect of every Yankee, as his “squibs” fetched by mid century
as much as $3,000; an astonishing amount for a “mere” poet. If there had ever been a
poet so well heeled, able to live so well before, no one could instantly name him.
In 1860, this paragon of heart-touching poets was living a life anyone might
envy. He resided in the grandest mansion in Cambridge, once the great domicile
of Tory John Vasall, a merchant whose loyalty to King and Crown cost him beyond
dear. George and Martha Washington made it their headquarters while George
created an army of farmers, so powerful at the end that the greatest nation
on Earth, bowed low before their majesty, the world indeed turned upside
Next, in 1843, Brattle Street and the imposing mansion given as a wedding
present by the bride’s affluent father, welcomed the prolific poet, his gracious
wife Fannie, and his soon to be numerous progeny, two sons and four daughters.
It was one of the young nation’s greatest romances. It became, and all too soon,
one of its greatest tragedies.
When joy ceases… and can no longer be even imagined. This is where tragedy
It began in an instant and was relived every day, every minute of his remaining
life; the death in 1861of loving Fannie by burns sustained in a freak accident.
One minute the highest bliss known, the next unspeakable pain that destroyed
every happy thought and made a mockery of all the joy that went before and
could never be again.
Death abides in the hymeneal chamber of love and life.
I have on divers occasions visited what is today preserved as the Longfellow –
Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, the sumptuous edifice
that began its life in 1759 as Craigie House. Here I have attended concerts
in the gardens, gathered the first lilacs and drunk wildly of their exuberant scent,
and peered over the white picket fence, wondering at the exalted beings who
had in their time claimed all this as their earthly paradise.
Would I, I wondered, write such verses to beguile a great nation? And would I,
for all that the words might come, yet also face eternal grief beyond reckoning,
no antidote to be had?
Such thoughts come easily and unbidden to poets who wander in the moonlight
on Brattle Street where the great house with its stately beauty yet fails to blot out
the tragedy that still reverberates within. I have known such unspeakable tragedy,
too, which words can never assuage. They return every day, but most of all at
Christmas. So do the blighted living feel the deep, abiding power of the dead, our
dead for the ones we most loved, hurt us the most deeply, and forever, simply by
leaving us. And we can do nothing about this final separation, this pain, nothing but
submit and bow our heads in profound resignation. But the pain abides forever.
This is the essential fact of the human condition, and it is bitter indeed.
On my last visit to this lordly residence, I made a special point of lingering in the
couple’s bedroom where Fannie lingered for a handful of precious hours after
being severely burned while putting locks of her children’s hair into an envelope
and attempting to seal it with hot sealing wax. Her dress caught fire, her shrieks
awakening Longfellow who was taking a nap just a few feet away. He rushed
to her assistance, throwing a rug over her, which proved too small to stop the
Fannie had died while saving hair from each child; instead just a day later, each
took a strand of her hair for remembrance and so she was buried on the 18th
anniversary of her marriage. There you will find her in the Mount Auburn Cemetery
where in due course she was joined by husband and where, in due course, I, too,
shall reside for the ages.
Thus the saddest event in the history of all the distinguished people who made
this celebrated house a home continued to burn. By the time Longfellow got
through to Fannie, both were badly burned, she dying the next morning of July 10,
1861; he disfigured for life, some of his deep scars covered by the patriarchal beard
he now adopted, giving him his trademark look.
The park service guide, whose objective is always moving the visitors through briskly
and maintaining a strict schedule tells the broad outline of this tale crisply and without
any emotion whatever. Their goal is management, not truth. To such guides I am
anathema, for I ask many questions, good questions and expect good answers, which
all too often I do not get. My presence irks them; their presence irks me. We each
understand the other perfectly,
Thus the guide told me to “come along” long before I was ready to do so. I am in
search of “Veritas” (“truth”), and this room, where so much happened, good and bad,
was there, the only eye-witness who saw it all. The hectoring guide didn’t.
That’s why I move slowly through this place of jumbled sensations, sensing the joys
therein but also, overwhelmingly, the terrible pain and grief; pain and grief so powerful
and destructive the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the essence
of American optimism and determination almost succumbed, his indomitable spirit
crushed by a single word, “Why?”, a question that all of us confront over and over again,
never finding a satisfying answer, but only the single word that perplexes, confuses,
and angers. So it is for you and me and our struggles; so it was with Longfellow and
His writing, the chronicle of a great nation, stopped, his thoughts bleak and pathetic.
He was not only convinced he would never write again but that the glorious,
lyric words and the works he had fashioned from them for so long were as superficial
and trivial as his critics said, just so much forgettable dross, not a glimmer of eternity
to be had. He decided to have his say on the matter before his more learned friends
and colleagues had theirs.
He dipped his pen into fresh ink as dark as the thoughts he would write from it.
“Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” And as
these caustic, despairing words were recorded, his head was bowed, his grief
unfathomable, nothing left to live for.
But then he heard the bells of Christmas Day,1863, the joyous cacophony of
bells from Harvard and every steeple alerting the citizens that, yes, our Messiah
was born. Dour, dismayed, desolate Longfellow was so touched by their adamant
certainty, he changed the message of his poem altogether.
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.
He wrote quickly, bold scrawls across the page, determined not to mss this
rebirth, this reaffirmation. For the first time since his great tragedy, he felt, if
not yet peace and hope, then at least their possibility. The bells of Christmas Day
had done their work, as the tears cascaded down his scarred face, a remembrance’
of deep love, abiding through the ages to come. God had heard. God had not
forgotten. God was here.
The poem written on Christmas Day in 1863 was first published in February 1865
in “Our Young Folks,” as “Christmas Bells”. The heart of the nation went out to the
grieving author. After all, everyone, whatever their situation or station had asked
at one time or another, the momentous question — “Why?”
He had laid his trouble before the world. The world responded with kindness, humanity,
empathy, renewed admiration, and love. Despite his thoughts of suicide, he came
to see how selfish that would be given the universal plea that he heal, write, and live,
the great nation’s great poet again.
However he was a man who had written but one love poem in his life. Of course it went
to Fannie… as did every thought and word, all dedicated to the great romance he
had won and lost.
Some years later, in 1872, English composer and organist John Baptiste Calkin
came to read Longfellow’s poem. Like all discerning readers, he felt the power of
Longfellow’s searing language, and he wrote the music which with the lyrics
touches us so. You can find the moving result in any search engine. I prefer the
version done expertly by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Listen to it when the
dawn comes up on Christmas Day, and be comforted.
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
About the Author
2016 is fast approaching and with it Dr. Jeffrey Lant’s 69th birthday. He is, he likes to
say, in the prime of his prime. Thus does the “scribbling” life he commenced at age
5 continue. Twenty books. Thousands of articles. Untold radio and television programs;
worldwide recognition and enthusiasm, all of which culminated in the publication of
his autobiography, “A Connoisseur’s Journey, being the artful memoirs of a man of wit, discernment, pluck and joy”. It was a book that screamed “classic!”, and he has
delighted in the several awards that followed.
To get your copy go to www.writerssecrets.com. You will also want to join his writing
course and learn from this master communicator just how you can improve everything
you ever write.
A most beautiful article I hope you will listen to this beautiful reading by Dr. Lant and be moved by it.