RING OUT WILD BELLS:  A Message For Our Day


Every first Sunday in January our church sings the hymn, “Ring Out Wild Bells”.  Its music is haunting, but the lyrics have always seemed strange to me, and as I discovered, we only sing three stanzas of the original poem.  I’ve often wondered what it means.  Recently, while researching the idea of Father Time and New Year celebrations in general, I came across the full lyrics of this poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Pondering his words, I found a deeper understanding, which seems eerily applicable to our world today.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (a Baron), lived from 1809 – 1892 in England.  He was poet laureate of the United Kingdom for most of Queen Victoria’s reign.  He is famous for several works, including “Charge of the Light Brigade”, “The Lady of Shalot”, and “In Memoriam”.   “Ring Out Wild Bells” is a section of “In Memoriam” which Tennyson wrote following the death of his close friend, Arthur Hallam.  Hallam was also engaged to Tennyson’s sister and died unexpectedly when he was 23 years old.  If you want to know more, a good biography of Tennyson can be found at internetpoem.com.

Wild Bells

In Britain, the ringing of church bells for special occasions has been a tradition since the early Christian priests rang a handbell to call the faithful to meetings, about 450 a.d.   Over time, bells became “tuned” and compositions written for bell ringers.  Wild bells (with no particular pattern) would be rung in times of danger or joy. 

According to Wikipedia: “It is an accepted English custom to ring English Full circle bells to ring out the old year and ring in the new year over midnight on New Year’s Eve. Sometimes the bells are rung half-muffled for the death of the old year, then the muffles are removed to ring without muffling to mark the birth of the new year.”

Father Time

I searched high and low for a good, comprehensive article about the concept of Father Time.  The best documented article can be found at Wikipedia, and I highly recommend it if you’d like to know more. 

Father Time seems to be an ancient symbol of Time, reaching back to the Greek male god of Chronos, or possibly a more ancient persona.  Tennyson’s use of the pronoun “he” when referring to the old year (“let him die”) reflects this connection.

Time is also a symbol of Truth.  Quote from the article: “Time (in his allegorical form) is often depicted revealing or unveiling the allegorical Truth, sometimes at the expense of a personification of Falsehood, Fraud, or Envy. This theme is related to the idea of veritas filia temporis (Time is the father of Truth).”

“Ring Out, Wild Bells”

In this poem, Tennyson touches upon obvious truths and offers solutions.  See if you can identify them for yourselves as you read each stanza below.  Listen to this beautiful rendition of the full song by the Croft Family.  The poem is so popular in Sweden that each year people gather to listen to readings of it as part of their New Year’s celebrations.

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.

My Personal Impressions

The first two stanzas seem to be about letting go of the past and freeing yourself to more fully experience the future.  Always good advice, and may reflect the tradition of New Year’s Resolutions, as well.

In the third stanza, Tennyson advises us to overcome our grief for those who have passed on, and to stop arguing over who is rich and who is poor.  His solution: seek redress for everyone who is grieving, rich or poor for grief is universal.  Redress means to set right or remedy a situation.  We have seen countless examples of grieving in 2021 and also countless acts of mercy by those attempting to ease the grief or pain of others, a timeless principle of compassionate outreach.  Jesus Christ said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40).

The fourth stanza appears to address political issues, something we have also had our fair share of in 2021.  I am weary of America’s corrupt political system.  We need to return to the higher road of moral political virtue in all areas of life.  Using the definitions found in the 1802 Webster’s Dictionary, both the Framers of America’s constitutional republic and Tennyson would have defined “moral” and “virtue” thus: Moral is “Relating to the practice, manners or conduct of men as social beings in relation to each other, and with reference to right and wrong. The word moral is applicable to actions that are good or evil, virtuous or vicious, and has reference to the law of God as the standard by which their character is to be determined. The word however may be applied to actions which affect only, or primarily and principally, a person’s own happiness;” and, Virtue is “Moral goodness; the practice of moral duties and the abstaining from vice, or a conformity of life and conversation to the moral law. In this sense, virtue may be, and in many instances must be, distinguished from religion”.  Yes, a return to moral and virtuous behavior in political life will lead to “purer laws”.   2022 is an election year.  Being moral and virtuous in our personal lives, and choosing moral and virtuous leaders, is the only path towards the restoration of a simpler, wiser, more peaceful America.

Tennyson mourns the lack of compassion humans show towards one another in the fifth stanza.  Daily news headlines in our time reflect this tendency, but there is hope.  Occasionally a story appears of how one individual saw a danger or a need and took action to help someone in distress.  The poet is asking us to shake off the negativity of the time and embrace the spirit of living life to its fulness, in spite of our trials and woes.  The role of a minstrel in ancient times was to uplift his audience with inspiring epic poetry and songs to liven the heart.  Psalm 100 says it best: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.  Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations”.

The sixth stanza seems to also be right out of the headlines, as Tennyson berates false nationalism and racial arrogance.  Instead, he asks us to seek the common ground of humanity based upon high principles of truth, justice, and compassion.  As Christ said, when asked what is the greatest commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’” (Matthew 22: 37-40).  It is not your nationality or ethnicity which matter, it is how you treat one another within the bounds of moral and civil law, which has its root in the morality and virtue of the individual.

Wars and rumors of wars, global pandemic, and materialism are the subjects of the seventh stanza, -.  We seem to be a reactionary people, always rushing to put out this fire or that fire, with no real, logically thought out, principled plan of action.  We have forgotten what our common principles are.  Tennyson seeks for the peace of a thousand years, a millennial peace looked forward to by prophets both ancient and modern, but that peace must be based upon truth.  Mankind must understand self-governance in order to govern communities and nations.  Joseph Smith stated it best when asked why there was no crime in Nauvoo, the city built by the Latter-day Saints in Illinois.  He said, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”

In A Nutshell: The Eighth Stanza

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.

The New Year of 2022 is open to all possibilities, good and bad.  Ultimately, it is how we govern our own lives that will matter most.  To be valiant and free, to show compassion to those we may encounter, these are the basic principles that will “ring out the darkness” and ring in the Light of Christ.  Then we may experience the thousand years of peace, which Tennyson longed for in his lifetime.

A conversation between Frodo and Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings seems appropriate here. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.  “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”  

What will you do with the time and circumstances that are given to you?

Happy New Year, One and All!  It’s going to be a great adventure!