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Analysis of Poem "Ringing The Bells" by Anne Sexton

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

Anne Sexton And A Summary of "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, and 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.

Line By Line 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.

Lines 1 - 7

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?

Lines 8 - 20

  • 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.

Lines 22 - 29

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.

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.


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.


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.


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 instills 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.


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

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


The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 2005

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

Being Alive, Bloodaxe, Neil Astley, 2004

© 2018 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on March 16, 2018:

Appreciate the visit to Anne Sexton's poem.

Dianna Mendez on March 16, 2018:

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