For seventeen years after the death of his best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, at twenty-two, Alfred Tennyson worked on the elegy In Memoriam. In effect, he wrote through his grief.
One of the last cantos in the book, “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” signifies the end of grief, the casting aside of the heartaches and pain of the old year, the return of faith, and the hope of a new and better way of life. Legend has it that Tennyson was inspired by hearing church bells on New Year’s Eve.
“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.” (Wikipedia)
The poem was published in 1850. Read it slowly. Words composed 170 years ago are as alive as if Tennyson had written them with the upcoming New Year’s Eve in mind.
I need to hear them now. Maybe you do, too.
- 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.
The musical setting by Charles Gounod omits two of the poem’s stanzas.