"Ring Out, Wild Bells"
Tennyson, from "In Memoriam," 1850
When our poet this week, Alfred Tennyson, was a young man at Cambridge, in 1829, he met the best friend he ever had in his life, Arthur Henry Hallam. This was at a time and in a place where friendship might be founded on more than merriment – though the boys had plenty of that, to be sure. They became friends because they shared the same intellectual and artistic passions. Tennyson was twenty, and Hallam was eighteen, and the lads were aspiring poets, both of them, with keen interests in the great social, political, and religious questions of the day, which they debated in what was then a fairly new group, the Cambridge Apostles. That Christmas, Tennyson took Hallam home with him to meet the rest of his family, and Hallam straightaway fell madly in love with Tennyson’s younger sister, Emilia. During the next Christmas holidays, Arthur and Emilia were engaged to be married.
And the marriage would have taken place, but Hallam’s father, who seems to have been a domineering sort of man, interfered, and forbade the boy to visit the Tennysons again until he reached the age of 21. He obeyed, but as soon as the birthday came, he went to visit Emilia, their love burning as brightly as ever. Perhaps at this time he was waiting until she came of age too, because she was his junior by seven months, or perhaps he wanted to establish himself in business before he could offer to take her into his home. But it was not to be. The next year, when Hallam and his father were on a trip to Europe, the young man felt a bit chilled, so he sat by a roaring fire in the lodgings while his father went out for a walk. When Mr. Hallam returned, Arthur was dead – an aneurysm in his brain had burst. Tennyson learned about his friend’s death by a short letter from Hallam’s uncle. When he read it to Emilia, she fainted in his arms.
Seventeen years later, Tennyson published what was probably the most beloved and celebrated of all Victorian poems, In Memoriam. It’s hard for us to imagine that anyone would think so deeply about the death of a friend from so long before, because our lives are beset with electronic distractions. We must remember that Tennyson did not suffer from that disadvantage. Whenever he went home, he could say, “This is where Arthur met Emilia for the first time, this is where we drank Christmas cheer by the fireside, this is where we went on a long walk in the hills covered with snow,” and then too, “Here is the village church where we went to hear the Christmas service together and sang the hymns.” But there was more. For the death of his friend pitched Tennyson into a long and slow struggle with religious doubts, as everywhere he turned he saw “nature red in tooth and claw,” apparently indifferent to human happiness, and he found no easy answer. Yet he did not give up – he who said that the Book of Job was the most profound poem from the ancient world, did not give up. “Our wills are ours, to make them thine,” he said in prayer to God, but how, he did not know, other than to trust in the work of the Father, and to keep the faith. Tennyson ended up being a deeply religious poet, to the last.
In our selection today, Tennyson is not at his English home, hearing the bells of the New Year. He is abroad, and in a strange way it is good for him to be so. These bells are not those he recognizes from his own past. And so he calls upon his own heart, and his readers, to join the bells that he imagines are ringing in more than just another January the first: they are ringing in a new age of mankind, a new and truer age, peace and not war, faith and not despair, even “the Christ that is to be.” I know, Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but perhaps we can take the poet as looking forward to a newness of Christ’s presence in the world; not a new person, then, or even a new and improved idea or theology, but new and fresh work, Christ more fully manifest in the lives of Christians and their nations.
One word here on the form of the poem. Tennyson chose tetrameter quatrains, that is, stanzas of four lines, with four strong beats per line. The rhyme is unusual, ABBA, with the last line rhyming back with the first, as if each stanza doubled upon itself. The effect is that of a quiet and self-contained climax. It is perfect for a poem of elegy and questioning, and perfect too for this confident calling in of the New Year.
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. Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow: The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true. Ring out the grief that saps the mind, For those that here we see no more; Ring out the feud of rich and poor, Ring in redress to all mankind. Ring out a slowly dying cause, And ancient forms of party strife; Ring in the nobler modes of life, With sweeter manners, purer laws. Ring out the want, the care, the sin, The faithless coldness of the times; Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes, But ring the fuller minstrel in. Ring out false pride in place and blood, The civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good. Ring out old shapes of foul disease; Ring out the narrowing lust of gold; Ring out the thousand wars of old, Ring in the thousand years of peace. Ring in the valiant man and free, The larger heart, the kindlier hand; Ring out the darkness of the land, Ring in the Christ that is to be.
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"...because our lives are beset with electronic distractions."
How true !
Thank you. I needed that.