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'Ring Out Wild Bells' (1850). A New Year’s Poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

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Painting by Henry Ryland (Public Domain)

Painting by Henry Ryland (Public Domain)

Hopes for the New Year

For centuries, shortly before midnight on New Year's Eve, campanologists have made their way towards England's parish churches where, on the stroke of midnight, they begin the ancient ritual of ringing out the old year and ringing in the new.

The sentiments expressed in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem Ring Out, Wild Bells still resonate almost 200 years after it was first published. The poem speaks of casting aside everything that was sad and bad about the year that has passed. It expresses fervent wishes that better aspects of human nature will emerge in the future.

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.

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'.

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 10 lines of the poem, Tennyson alludes to the death of his close friend at the age of 22, 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 socioeconomic and political situation in the mid-19th 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 1,000 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.

Technical Analysis

  • 'Ring Out, Wild Bells' is written largely in iambic tetrameter, i.e. four beats of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. This is the rhythm of the first six stanzas. 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.
  • Each stanza rhymes the first with the fourth line and the second with the third line.
  • Repetition abounds to give emphasis.

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, Arthur Henry Hallam, who was also his sister's fiancé and who had died suddenly at the age of 22.

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.

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

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

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892): A Short Biography

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • He was 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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What hope does Tennyson show for the future in ring Out Wild Bells poem? Is the poem a criticism of the present?

Answer: I think Tennyson is addressing two separate and distinct themes in this poem.

The first ten lines allude to the grief that he and his sister, Emilia, were feeling after the unexpected death of Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833, to whom Emilia had become engaged in 1832. There was a great deal of concern in the immediate family for Emilie's future wellbeing. What Tennyson wishes for in these ten lines is that, as the year ends and a new one begins, his sister will be able to let go of grief and move forward. (Of course, this type of deep grief has experienced by many people, and so the lines have appeal to a wider audience than his very personal one).

The remaining lines are a social commentary about the prevailing political climate and inequality in society. And they express a wish for social reform. Tennyson wishes that the worst aspects of human nature will be corrected - that corruption, political ruthlessness, and ambition, and the resultant class pride, poverty, and social inequality will be replaced by a more caring, equal and compassionate society.

I would argue that these lines. Rather than expressing HOPE for the future, are WISHES (which are, of course, not always fulfilled).

Question: What kind of changes does Tennyson hope to see in the future in his poem "Ring Out, Wild Bells"?

Answer: Tennyson hopes for a fairer, more equal society that is is not rooted in self-interest on the part of the influential people in society. The values that he expresses could be described as socially and politically liberal, veering towards the left.

Question: According to the poet, should we change?

Answer: Absolutely! The poem is a heartfelt wish for a fairer, kinder more equal society, which would involve those in positions of wealth and power to change their social attitudes and habits.

Question: What does the title “Ring Out Wild Bells” mean?

Answer: It is said that Tennyson chose the title for this poem after listening to the clang of the bells in a church tower on a wild and windy night. Church bells in England were traditionally rung by bell ringers at midnight on New Year’s Eve to signal the start of a new year. Tennyson either connected a rung peal of church bells with a stormy night to craft his poem or the sounds that he heard was that made by bells being tossed about by the wind and so sounding wild as opposed to tuneful. The choice of the word ‘wild’ suggests to me the personal turmoil and the national turmoil that reflected in the lines of the poem. Leaving the word out would have resulted in a less effective creation of tone and mood in the poem.

© 2017 Glen Rix