Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

04 January 2019

The sound of church bells has inspired many poets, Malcolm Guite finds

ONE of the pleasures of this season in Linton is in hearing the bells rung from St Mary’s church tower: the sound of bells called us to the Christmas services, and bells ring in the New Year. Indeed, many parishioners keep New Year’s Eve with the ringers, in a bring-and-share feast in our church pavilion, and then toast the New Year with them when they come down from ringing it in.

I am no campanologist, and, like many people, my knowledge of the distinctively English art of change-ringing is entirely beholden to close readings and re-readings of Dorothy Sayers’s masterpiece The Nine Tailors.

But I know enough, as the bells summon me to church, to listen for their intricate interweaving, each with its own tone and name, changing places in a complex dance, answering one another. I hear it as a kind of metre, a kind of poetry, and it is no surprise that this art in ringing has inspired the art of many poets.

George Herbert, in his beautiful poem “Prayer” — which is itself a kind of peal, a ringing out of 27 images in 14 lines, each image an emblem of prayer — makes one of those emblems the sound of bells: “Church-bells beyond the stars heard.” There is a fine ambiguity there; for Herbert leaves us to decide whether it is heaven that hears our bells, or we who sometimes, in our prayer, hear the bells from beyond the stars, the music of the spheres.

Milton invokes those same spheres in the famous lines of his “On The Morning Of Christ’s Nativity”:
 

Ring out, ye crystal spheres!
Once bless our human ears,
(If ye have power to touch our senses so)
 

Nearly 150 years later, it was the sound of church bells, heard in childhood, that first stirred and haunted Coleridge with those longings that eventually found their fulfilment in Christ:
 

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. . . the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
 

Tennyson, who surely knew and loved this passage, takes up the peal and rings his own changes on it, in the great outburst of joy and hope which pierces the long darkness of his In Memoriam:
 

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
 

Betjeman, too, was famously “summoned by bells”, and I also tried once, in my own small way, to answer the summons of those bells, in my poem New Year’s Day: Church Bells, which began by contrasting the long, strong continuity of those old bells with the more recent noises of our electronica:
 

Not the bleak speak of mobile messages,
The soft chime of synthesised reminders,
Not texts, not pagers, data packages,
Not satnav or locators ever find us
As surely, soundly, deeply as these bells. . .
 

And I ended my poem with an attempt to render in the sound of the lines themselves something of the music our change-ringers set flying though the frosty air:
 

“Begin again” they sing, “again begin”,
A ring and rhythm answered from within.

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