THERE is something both familiar and strange about the sound of church bells: familiar, for the sound of the peal is immemorial, a sound we have heard all our lives and that has been heard in this same place for so many generations, but strange, because, although we know their source, the music of the bells seems to come from everywhere.
Walking down a lane in Linton, my heart is suddenly lifted by the rippling peal that summons me to the service in St Mary’s, just over the little stream of the Granta. I know that the source of that sound lies ahead of me, at my journey’s end, but I seem to hear the bells behind and all around me, almost beside me at each step.
For the bells echo a little differently off each of the houses, the differently pitched roofs, the old stone walls that border gardens on these winding village lanes, as though the sound rose from the village itself and shimmered towards the church instead of the other way round. And that strange sense that the source of the sound itself is oscillating back and forth, is echoed and mirrored in the way the changes are rung, the way the sequence of falling and rising tones keeps turning round and back and in on itself before it widens out again.
No wonder so many poets have been inspired by the sound of bells; for their art also depends on echoes, reflections, and reversals, on apparently spontaneous peals of sound that conceal their own patterns. Coleridge heard in the village church bells “most articulate sounds of things to come”, and, centuries later, Bob Dylan, taking shelter in a church porch during a thunderstorm, seemed to hear in the flashes of thunder and lightning the tolling of great bells, ringing out, in his unforgettable phrase “the chimes of freedom”:
Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
George Herbert also had this sense that the sound of the bells might be going both ways, and so he made them an emblem of prayer. His phrase “Church-bells beyond the stars heard” is deliberately ambiguous: it might mean that our prayers rise beyond the stars, as the sound of our church bells rises to the skies, or it might mean that, in prayer, our ears are opened at last to hear the bells of heaven, “Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind, Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind”, as Dylan would later put it.
Those intuitions of double direction, of falling and rising, and of the time beyond time that every bell brings closer, were all in my mind when I came to compose my own response to Herbert’s phrase:
Church bells beyond the stars heard
Is it our bells they hear beyond the stars,
Or theirs whose echo sounds to us below?
Or is it both? The music of the spheres
Which we imagine, and yet cannot know,
Whose ringing joy we hear and do not hear,
Elicits a response, and our church bells,
Whose steepled peals still ring in each New Year,
All cry and clamour for the time that tells
Us time itself is over, the dark veil
Is lifted, and we see the radiant face
Of Love in everything; the mournful bell
That tolled for all our funerals gives place
To Heaven’s music truly heard at last,
Our last change rung on earth, our last pain past.