Analysis of Poem "Ringing The Bells" by Anne Sexton

Updated on March 1, 2018
chef-de-jour profile image

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton | Source

Anne Sexton and Ringing Of Bells

Ringing of Bells is based on Anne Sexton's actual experience as a psychiatric patient in a mental institution, following bouts of depression and suicidal attempts.

It is a subtle yet powerful poem, like a monologue, full of imagery and observation; it has figurative language too, which adds to the inner tension as the poem progresses.

The initial lines are influenced by children's nursery rhymes - possibly This Is The House That Jack Built and Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush - two old rhymes that are usually sung by groups of children. The rhythmic impulse and some internal rhyme certainly comes from this source....and this is the way...and this is the gray....and this is always.

As the reader moves through the poem the atmosphere changes, from one of innocence and lightheartedness to a slightly chill darkness, the speaker resenting having to participate in an activity that makes her feel out of place, which she feels does little good.

Anne Sexton's life with mental illness has been well documented over the years. From her letters and actions it is plain to see that she was a troubled soul - poetry gave her the chance to shine a light into the abyss and find a way out, albeit temporarily.

Her brand of confessional poetry broke new ground; she touched upon subjects that were, at the time, taboo. With raw power, audacious language and vivid imagery she dug deep and managed to put her angst into many of her poems. And because she was a woman, she helped break down barriers whilst dividing opinion.

A performer (she fronted a band whilst reading her poetry), a mother, a former model, Anne Sexton was many things to many different people. Thankfully, her inner discipline helped create poetry that still intrigues and shocks.

Ringing of Bells is an early attempt to put her experiences into some kind of order. It is a short litany on a theme of helplessness; the speaker feels like a misfit yet cannot refuse to participate in what is deemed an exercise of no benefit to the crazy ladies.

Ringing The Bells

   And this is the way they ring
the bells in Bedlam
and this is the bell-lady
who comes each Tuesday morning 
to give us a music lesson
and because the attendants make you go
and because we mind by instinct,
like bees caught in the wrong hive,
we are the circle of crazy ladies
who sit in the lounge of the mental house
and smile at the smiling woman
who passes us each a bell,
who points at my hand
that holds my bell, E flat,
and this is the gray dress next to me
who grumbles as if it were special
to be old, to be old,
and this is the small hunched squirrel girl
on the other side of me
who picks at the hairs over her lip,
who picks at the hairs over her lip all day,
and this is how the bells really sound,
as untroubled and clean
as a workable kitchen,
and this is always my bell responding
to my hand that responds to the lady
who points at me, E flat;
and although we are not better for it,
they tell you to go. And you do.

Analysis of Ringing of Bells

Ringing of Bells results from Anne Sexton's need to write down her immediate experiences in order to try and understand them. It also reflects her interest in nursery rhyme and the various rhythms contained therein.

Being a creative poet she experimented with the old and new - borrowing from traditional sources and giving it a modern and personal twist. In this poem the speaker is one with the poet, the voice coming straight from the poet's mind.

Starting off a poem with the word And might be seen as a risk or a cop-out but it works well in this case, giving the impression that the reader has joined proceedings that have already begun or as part of a continuum.

Bedlam means chaos, uproar or madness and entered the language as a nickname of one of the first mental asylums in the world, Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, UK.

The first seven lines make a sub-clause full of repetition, just like the ringing, with each line enjambed - without punctuation - taking the reader on through natural caesura (pauses).

As the simple lines move along, the reader might puzzle over line seven ...and because we mind by instinct...is this the ladies minding, that is, they do not like having to go to bell-ringing but cannot articulate their feelings?

  • The next line, line eight, supports this view that the ladies aren't quite right with the situation. Instinctually, like wrongly hived bees, they perhaps know they should be somewhere else.

Because they're not, the speaker sees them as crazy ladies, smiling, being given a bell each.

  • And in lines 13/14 the reader gets a real idea of the disassociative element of tone when the speaker refers to my hand/that holds my bell that slightly detached feel coming across with chill effect.

Is the speaker in control or is she not? Overall, she is not.

Either side of the speaker are other ladies, presumably, but one is only a gray dress there is no humanity described or suggested. It's the gray dress that grumbles, not a person.

The other person is a hunched squirrel girl picking at hairs over her lip...which she does each day. These are not very positive lines, but they are true to the poem itself, for this speaker is somehow remote, not dealing with real humans, real feelings.

In line 22 the word really carries much weight. The sound of the bells is untroubled and clean...in contrast to the lives of the ladies, which are anything but. This is the one point in the poem where reality hits home. Natural sounds are related to domesticity. The workable kitchen becomes something much more - something to aspire to, a dream situation.

So the speaker is somewhat trapped within this bell-ringer's circle. There is no getting out of it, they have to go and ring, they have to respond to the bell-lady when she points at their individual hands.

Further Analysis of Ringing of Bells

Ringing of Bells is a single stanza poem of 29 lines. It is in free verse, there being no rhyme scheme and no set meter (metre in British English).

The whole poem is made up of two sentences, the first really long, the second extremely short. It's as if the speaker has taken a deep breath and just reeled off a description of what happens in the bell circle each Tuesday morning. And right at the end has to justify what they do, despite the fact that ringing the bells doesn't make them feel any better.

Tone

The tone is distanced and resigned. The speaker has no choice but to take part in this supposedly therapeutic activity and expresses herself with child-like, mechanical repetition. There is no joy or feeling of happiness in the poem. The speaker simply complies, a bit like an automaton.

Rhythm

There are rhythms within various lines that mimic the ringing of bells and the silences between rings. Punctuation helps to reinforce this effect, as in lines 9-17, where lines are reduced in length as rhythms alter and pauses echo the silences.

Anapaests, feet with two unstressed beats and one stressed beat, give the effect of quick quick slow, like the different bells being rung:

  • who sit / in the lounge / of the men / tal house
  • and smile / at the smil / ing woman

Poetic Devices - Simile

Note the simile in line 8...the ladies are like bees caught in the wrong hive...this is a strange environment the ladies find themselves in. They feel as if they're lost in an unfamiliar place, unable to communicate properly, without a goal.

And in lines 23/24...the sound of the bells is as untroubled and clean/ as a workable kitchen,.....this leading to the idea of efficient domesticity, the kitchen being an environment which many of the ladies perhaps had once been used to.

Repetition

As the reader progresses through the poem it becomes clear that the word and for example is repeated many times. In fact, it is used 10 times to start a line. This repeated use instils a feeling of monotony and sameness, reflecting the weekly exercise and the boredom of being told what to do each time.

The word who starts 8 lines, perhaps to suggest the idea that the ladies in the circle do not know who they are really are, relative to each other.

Alliteration

There are one or two examples of alliteration, which brings texture and interest phonetically:

bells in Bedlam....hairs over her.....tell you to.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Andrew Spacey

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    • chef-de-jour profile image
      Author

      Andrew Spacey 3 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Appreciate the visit to Anne Sexton's poem.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 months ago

      Interesting poem that brings one to an awareness of how the mind is active beyond what we can see.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)