Longfellow’s Epiphany – He Heard the Bells

Longfellow’s Epiphany is a heart-rending story about how the poet’s faith was renewed after many years of sorrow and illness.

Longfelllow's Epiphany
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1868, at the age of sixty-one.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (February 27, 1807 – March 24, 1882) was the most popular American poet of his day. On December 25th 1864 he composed the words to a Christmas carol, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”, which contains the powerful healing experience of Longfellow’s epiphany. As in every year, he heard Christmas bells, however, on that particular Christmas day, something struck deeper in his soul and he wrote his song, it was Longfellow’s epiphany.
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Longfellow’s most famous work was “Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie”. It is an epic poem written in English and published in 1847. The poem is about an Acadian girl named Evangeline and follows the search for her lost love Gabriel. The poem is set during the time of the Expulsion of the Acadians. Evangeline is a heart-rending story of an enduring love which is powerful and eternal. It is so beautifully written with such deep emotion that it pulls the reader right into the life of Evangeline and enables the reader to experience every nuance of her feelings, faith and amazing strength. Evangeline is a story of a love that will restore in the heart of many the beauty and sincerity of a true, spiritual love which time and distance cannot diminish.

Longfellow personally knew and experienced such a deep and lasting love with his first wife Mary who died in 1835, then with his wife Fanny, who died tragically in 1861.
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Longfellow's epiphany
Fanny Appleton Longfellow, with sons Charles and Ernest, circa 1849.

 

Longfellow’s first wife, Mary Storer Potter, died in 1835 after a miscarriage. They were married in 1831. He was deeply saddened by her death and wrote: “One thought occupies me night and day … She is dead – She is dead! All day I am weary and sad.” Three years later, he was inspired to write the poem “Footsteps of Angels” about her.

In 1836 Longfellow began a courtship with Francis Appleton. He was very much in love with Francis, but, she did not have the same feelings and was quite frosty towards him. In late 1839, Longfellow published Hyperion, a prose romance about a man who was rejected by the woman he loved. The work was inspired by his trips abroad and his unsuccessful courtship of Fanny. Amidst this, he fell into “periods of neurotic depression with moments of panic” and took a six-month leave of absence from Harvard to attend a health spa in the former Marienberg Benedictine Convent at Boppard in Germany.

In 1843 Longfellow was again blessed with love when Fanny agreed to marry him. His love for Fanny is evident in the following lines from his only love poem, the sonnet “The Evening Star” which he wrote in October 1845: “O my beloved, my sweet Hesperus! My morning and my evening star of love!” He once attended a ball without her and noted, “The lights seemed dimmer, the music sadder, the flowers fewer, and the women less fair.”

Longfellow and Fanny had six children: Charles Appleton (1844–1893), Ernest Wadsworth (1845–1921), Fanny (1847–1848), Alice Mary (1850–1928), Edith (1853–1915), and
Anne Allegra (1855–1934).

On July 9, 1861, Fanny put locks of her children’s hair in an envelope and attempted to use hot sealing wax to seal it closed. Somehow, her dress caught fire. Longfellow heard her screams and rushed in to help her. He tried to stifle the flames with a small rug to no avail. He the stifled them with his own body by hugging her. Fanny had been so badly burned and died the next morning. Longfellow had also been badly burned and could not attend her funeral due to severe wounds.

Longfellow was devastated by her death and never fully recovered; he occasionally resorted to laudanum and ether to deal with his grief. He worried that he would go insane, begging “not to be sent to an asylum” and noting that he was “inwardly bleeding to death”. He expressed his grief in the sonnet “The Cross of Snow” (1879) which he wrote 18 years later to commemorate her death:

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

Another tragedy for Longfellow happened in the 1860s when his son was severely injured during the Civil War. He then wrote the poem “Christmas Bells”, later the basis of the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. After years of sorrow and depression had touched his life, Longfellow’s epiphany brought peace to him. His love for Mary and Fanny was as strong as ever, yet Longfellow’s epiphany gave him renewed faith.

Longfellow's epiphany

 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died on March 24, 1882. He was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, next to both his beloved wives.
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© 2018 Phyllis Doyle Burns

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Phyllis Doyle Burns

Chief Editor at The Creative Exiles
I have always liked to write.It is important to me that writing comes from my heart and soul. When writing poetry, if I do not feel a spiritual connection to what I am writing on, I will discard it and go on to something I can connect with on a spiritual level. I live in the moment, I write from the past or beyond the veil. When writing fiction I go with whatever inspires me at the moment - it could be funny, sorrowful, romantic or sometimes done with the use of colloquial language from mountain folk or other cultural regions. Thank you for visiting.
Phyllis Doyle Burns
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Phyllis Doyle Burns

I have always liked to write. It is important to me that writing comes from my heart and soul. When writing poetry, if I do not feel a spiritual connection to what I am writing on, I will discard it and go on to something I can connect with on a spiritual level. I live in the moment, I write from the past or beyond the veil. When writing fiction I go with whatever inspires me at the moment - it could be funny, sorrowful, romantic or sometimes done with the use of colloquial language from mountain folk or other cultural regions. Thank you for visiting.

12 thoughts on “Longfellow’s Epiphany – He Heard the Bells

  • December 23, 2018 at 5:36 AM
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    Wow, I knew none of this Phyllis and it would seem that tragedy seems to be the fate of the most talented. I often wonder why that is. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • December 23, 2018 at 10:03 AM
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      I guess tragedy and sorrow is fuel for poet’s and storytellers. Thanks for reading and commenting, Kurt. I appreciate it.
      Merry Christmas to you.

      Reply
    • December 23, 2018 at 10:05 AM
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      Well thank you, Jamie. Glad you enjoyed this. Take care and Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones.

      Reply
  • December 23, 2018 at 9:07 AM
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    Tragedy is often a cross some of us poets must bare. The losses are too often insurmountable and hold us captive through our short lives. One of the deepest wounds a poet will often never recover from is loss LOVE, being such deep thinkers, passionate lovers and requiring the love of a woman in our lives often is our demise, some earlier than others. Longfellow’s tragic life was his fate, yet the work that came from his heart and soul whilst going through this hell is a blessing left for us all to read and enjoy. As sad and gifted poets are, they leave legacies that live within the heart of so many. Like Poe, he was a man of deep sorrow, but look at what he penned, his works live on forevermore. Thank you for sharing this story, sad as it is, his tribute to mankind one of many, “He Heard the Bells” well penned Phyllis, much enjoyed, though a tear filled my eyes.

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    • December 23, 2018 at 10:08 AM
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      Thank you so much, Vincent. I am glad you enjoyed this piece. I always saw Longfellow as such a giant of literature – I never realized all the sorrow he suffered. I love his works. Take care dear poet.

      Reply
  • December 23, 2018 at 11:17 AM
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    Thank you Phyllis , This is great , I did not know of these tragedies although I will be sure to check him out .! Merry Christmas my dear lady for all you do and have done , You are truly a saint !

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  • December 23, 2018 at 12:25 PM
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    Such an educational experience- thanks for sharing and Merry Yule to you !

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    • December 23, 2018 at 2:17 PM
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      Ah! Merry Yule to you and your loved ones, Ralph. Thanks for reading and commenting on Longfellow – I appreciate that. I am glad you enjoyed it. Take care.

      Reply
  • January 1, 2019 at 10:36 PM
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    Thank you for sharing this Phyllis. Longfellow’s story really tugged at my heart-strings…so tragic, especially Fanny’s death. I never knew any of this so I am indebted to you for sharing. I loved the poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and Burl Ives was the perfect narrator.

    Reply
    • January 1, 2019 at 11:17 PM
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      You are most welcome, John. I am so pleased you enjoyed this. Longfellow wore that full beard the rest of his life to hide the scars from the fire when he hugged Fanny. Yes, Burl Ives sang the song so beautifully. I love the poem. Thank you for reading and commenting, I appreciate it. Take care.

      Reply

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