‘Ring Out, Wild Bells, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850). An Analysis

Updated on July 2, 2018
Glenis Rix profile image

Glenis studied for a B. A. (Hons) in English literature after taking early retirement. She was awarded her degree at the age of 67.

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Ringing in the New Year

For centuries, shortly before midnight on New Year's Eve campanologists have made their way towards many of England's parish churches and, on the stroke of midnight, begin the ancient ritual of ringing out the old year and ringing in the new. The sentiments expressed in Tennyson's poem Ring Out, Wild Bells still resonate almost two hundred years after it was first published. The poem speaks of bringing relief from grief, about casting aside everything that was sad and bad about the year that has passed, and makes fervent wishes that the better aspects of human nature will emerge in the future. Isn't that what most people hope for when the New Year brings a symbolic opportunity for a new beginning?

Ring Out, Wild Bells (1850) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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.

Historical Context of "Ring Out, Wild Bells"

The poem Ring Out, Wild Bells, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, forms part of the elegy In Memoriam, A.H.H, published in 1850. Tennyson wrote the elegy as a tribute to his close friend, who was also his sister's fiancé, Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died suddenly at the age of twenty-two.

According to legend, the inspiration for the poem came when Tennyson, staying in the vicinity of Waltham Abbey, heard the Abbey Church bells clanging in the wind on a stormy night.

As a child in the large family of an impoverished country Church rector, Tennyson would have seen and perhaps experienced many of the features of society that he wrote about in Ring Out, Wild Bells.

An Interpretation of "Ring Out, Wild Bells" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The imagery of the ringing of the Church bells on New Year's Eve is an evocation of Tennyson's view of what needs to be wrung out of society and what needs to be ushered in with the New Year.

Notable features of the poem are:

  • the insistent rhythm, which reflects the rhythmic sound of church bells when tolled both for the dead and to call people to prayer. This rhythm is not suggestive of the joyful peals that ring out on celebratory occasions.It is the vehicle for a driven, passionate message.
  • the frequent repetition and the insistence implicit in the words ring out ( which occur at the start if each of the first seven verses and with increasing frequency as the poem moves forward). Note that in verse seven the words appear in each of the first three lines (lines 25-27). This repetition suggests the fervency of the wishes expressed by the poet.
  • the first, vividly descriptive verse, puts the poem in context. It is a stormy night. According to local legend, the nearby church bells were swinging wildly in the wind when Tennyson was inspired to write this poem. The year is dying (it is New Year's Eve) and the poet is ready to put the year and the grief that he has experienced at the death of a friend behind him.

In the first ten lines of the poem Tennyson alludes to the death, at the age of twenty-two, of his close friend, who was also the fiancé of his sister, Arthur Henry Hallam.The suggestion is that the time has come to put an end to grieving and move on the stage of acceptance of death - to let him go (line 7) because grief saps the mind. The suggestion is that with the end of the year comes the time for a new beginning.

Lines 11-20 seem to be Tennyson's expression of his political philosophy, written in the context of Britain's socio-economic and political situation in the mid-nineteenth century. The Kingdom is divided along sharp class boundaries into those who are rich and those who are poor. This is the cause of much conflict. It is time to redress the ills of society, for it to become kinder, more equal, and just.

The times are faithless and harsh and Tennyson is hoping that his lines, expressing his hopes for the future (note the first-person tense of 19) will be echoed in the chiming of the New Year bells. He hopes that more powerful voices than his own - the fuller minstrel (line 20) - will bring about positive social change.

Lines 21-24 are an exposition of the theme of equality and justice. Class divisions in society are exemplified in false pride in place and blood (line 21). Both those who have inherited high social positions and those who occupy civic positions (line 22) are at fault. Tennyson's New Year wish, emphasised by the repetition of the words Ring in at the beginning of both lines 23 and 24, is that nobler characteristics will emerge in the future.

Lines 25-28 express a wish that the bells will usher out greed and war and bring a thousand years of peace.

The final stanza, number eight, summarizes what has gone before. Everything bad about the past must be discarded and the poet hopes for a future in which life is lived in accordance with true Christian values.


Waltham Abbey Church, said to be the inspiration for Ring Out, Wild Bells
Waltham Abbey Church, said to be the inspiration for Ring Out, Wild Bells

Technical Analysis of ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’

Form -

  • Ring Out Wild Bells is written largely in iambic tetrameter ie. four beats of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. This is the rhythm of the first six stanza. Note, however, that the poem diverges from this pattern in the seventh stanza with the three syllable word narrowing in line 26. The length of line 26 is consequently nine syllables. The eighth stanza similarly diverges from the rhythm established in the first six stanzas.
  • eight stanzas, each stanza of four lines.
  • Rhyming scheme - each stanza rhymes the first with the fourth line and the second with the third line.
  • Repetition (discussed above) to give emphasis


Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

  • Tennyson was one of England and Ireland's Poets Laureate, appointed by Queen Victoria in 1850 and holding the tenure until his death in 1892.
  • England's longest-serving Poet Laureate.
  • Tennyson's best-known poems include Charge of the Light Brigade and The Lady of Shallott
  • Tennyson is the ninth most-quoted writer in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
  • Phrases from some of Tennyson's poems have become commonplace English usage:-

"Nature, red in tooth and claw"

"Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all"

"Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die"

"My strength is as the strength of ten, / Because my heart is pure"

  • Tennyson had humble beginnings, from which he rose to be appointed to a barony by Queen Victoria, taking his seat in the House of Lords in 1884




Statue of Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge
Statue of Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge | Source

Tomorrow is the first page of a 365 page book. Write a good one.

Happy New Year

— Brad Paisley

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 GlenR

    Comments

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    • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

      GlenR 

      7 months ago from UK

      Happy Newyear to you too, Charmaine.

    • threekeys profile image

      Threekeys 

      7 months ago from Australia

      I'm not strong on the analysis side of poetry. I just go with the feel and flow. However, a great read. Many thanks. And have a happy new year, Glenis.

    • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

      GlenR 

      7 months ago from UK

      Happy New Year, Dora.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      7 months ago from The Caribbean

      This poem has always inspired me to let go of everything negative as the old year leaves, and welcome a new beginning with the new year. Thanks for the context and interpretations. Tennyson and all the Romantics impress me.

    • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

      GlenR 

      7 months ago from UK

      RTalloni, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I echo your observations and comments.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 

      7 months ago from the short journey

      Happy New Year to you and yours! Thank you for this interesting look at Tennyson's "Ring Out, Wild Bells" as we approach 2018. History proves that recognizing the need for change and understanding how it can be accomplished are two different things. Oh that this new year would find people willing to embrace the One who came to make it possible for us be what we were created to be!

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