Ring out, wild bells

For Advent and Christmas this year, Candace and I again are reading aloud together through Malcolm Guite, Waiting on the Word, a collection of poems and essay reflections. On New Years Day, Malcolm Guite calls our attention to the “ring out, wild bells” section of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850; section CVI). Go to Malcolm’s blog where he reprints Tennyson’s lines and reads them aloud. There he also points to the appealing, yearning, meditative musical version by Alana Levandoski, embedded above.

Although I have been aware of this poetic passage since first watching How To Steal a Million and hearing Peter O’Toole call out the first line, this year the words seem particularly poignant and call me to renewed reflection. With hope diminished, Tennyson nevertheless “takes up in this poem the task of articulating what are those things to come, of which the bells speak, and centring them surely and clearly on our Advent hope in the coming of Christ; not just at Christmas but in and through all time and at the end” (Waiting on the Word, p. 131). Reminiscent of Ecclesiastes’ call for a time for every purpose under heaven, the ringing of the bells proclaims the onward pull of the future advent upon on all things — “ring in the Christ, that is to be.”

Malcolm again explains:

“The pealing of bells ringing in the new year brings us round again to Tennyson’s great poem In Memoriam. On 12 December, we listened with him for the ‘muffled peal’ of bells heard in grief, whose half-heard chime served only to remind him of his loss [section XXVIII]. But now, he strikes another note. In the art of English change ringing, we hear a wonderful interweaving of bells, each with its own tone and name, changing places in a complex dance, answering one another, constantly changing order to renew and transfigure a pattern” (p. 130).

Back in early December, I took my tattered old volume of Tennyson off the shelf and reposed for a while in the poem. (Cf. Wikipedia: Ring out, wild bells, In Memoriam.)

It is good to return to it now, and to contemplate on New Years Day how change-ringing is the way life unfolds. Coincidentally, I’ve also been reading that great Lord Peter Wimsey mystery which revolves upon change-ringing, and which (not coincidentally) takes place largely at Christmastide and New Years, Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.

Thank you, Malcolm, for this reflection, and for the entire book.

Malcolm Guite, Waiting on the Word Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors

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