Call it allusion upon allusion, the line that goes through my mind these days. I make it the title of this piece knowing that you will recognize it from the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Further, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow counted on his readers’ familiarity with Peace on earth, goodwill towards men, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds in Luke’s telling of the Christmas story.
This year a friend sent me the little-known story behind Longfellow’s poem, later set to music. Longfellow’s beloved wife Fannie had died from injuries sustained in a house fire. Longfellow himself recovered from his burns, although he never regained the full use of his arms. And he went through searing grief.
His phrase I heard the bells, therefore, means he heard them, finally, again.
Earlier this month and long before the killing of the innocents in Newtown, I wrote a joyful three-line poem for the parents of a one-month-old baby. Eddy’s father is a pastor, and Eddy, I am sure, is the present darling of that congregation.
It was not that I set out to write it, the way one might decide to write a poem for a special occasion. Instead, it began with saying his name aloud. How well it seems to go together: Eddy McArdle. In this tiny poem, moreover, the first word jumped up and said it should be the title. (You realize, of course, that the work of a poet is mostly play; this must be why there is hardly any money in it.)
We are now, however, in a different place. There is no peace on earth, I said is this season’s bitterly-felt lament. During the all-faiths service replayed on our television stations last Sunday night, my husband and I stayed up to hear the Rabbi’s sung Kaddish. I did not need to understand Hebrew. I closed my eyes and allowed the yearning melody to carry my prayers for which there were no words.
The next time I happen to see my friends’ child, he will be heartbreakingly beautiful to me. All children are, and early December seems ages ago.
Still, think of Mary the mother during the flight into Egypt, having heard the horrifying news about all boy-babies under the age of two, whose families lived in Bethlehem. Surely she held her baby ever more closely not only from fear but from sadness and bewilderment. And think of the angel in that gospel story, think of Heaven itself, knowing our sorrows—and creating among us peace and goodwill. Not mere words, not nice wishes. But peace and love, yes, and joy again.
was a Thursday in early December
when I held that wee babe Eddy McArdle
in my arms for as long as I wished.