Church bells. School bells. Sleigh bells. Cow bells. Dinner bells and bicycle bells.
Poe captured their variety and vibrancy perfectly: that tintinnabulation that rang and clanged through a different, non-digital world. Generations were introduced to onomatopoeia through his rollicking, unforgettable verse:
Hear the sledges with the bells,
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars, that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
Sadly, even as our world grows increasingly cacophonous, bells are less and less a part of its clamor. Sleigh bells ring, but if you want to listen, you’d best be off to a living history farm. The teacher with her handbell is gone, as are those insistent playground bells calling free-roaming children to class.
While the Swiss battle over belling their cows, most people know the cowbell only as the punchline of a classic Saturday Night Live skit. As for ringing a bell to call the family to dinner, the practice seems unbearably old-fashioned: perhaps even incomprehensible. Today, the call to dinner — if it’s made at all — is likely to be texted.
Even church bells and their associated traditions have been affected by modern life. London’s famous Bow Bells, sounding from the tower of Christopher Wren’s beautifully designed church of St Mary-le-Bow, have defined what it means to be Cockney for centuries; only those born within the sound of the bells can claim the designation.
Today, fewer of these “true Londoners” are being born, thanks to noise pollution. In 1851, noise levels in the capital were similar to those of today’s British countryside, but as London street and aviation noise increases, the area in which the pealing bells can be heard has decreased.
Around 150 years ago the bells could be heard in Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, and parts of Camden and Waltham Forest. Today, they’re heard only in a small area in the City and Shoreditch.
On the road from London to Lewes, mileage may be calculated from the church door of St Mary-le-Bow, and mileposts marked with cast-iron bows and bells, but her bells no longer are heard in Southwark, let alone Lewes. It’s a wonder, given their marvelous, musical clanging.
The bells of St Mary-le-Bow, captured in video by the son of a man who helped to install them in 1961 after the post-WWII rebuilding of the church
A way of hanging church bells had been found which enabled ringers to control the speed at which they rang, making it possible to change the order in which the bells sounded.
As the 17th century progressed, some ringers began to further develop the range of changes which could be rung. [Fabian] Stedman was one of them. The son of a Herefordshire clergyman, he was apprenticed to a printer in London, where he became an active ringer.
In 1668 his professional and personal interests combined when he published the anonymous Tintinnalogia, or the Art of Ringing (attributed to ‘a lover of that art’), the first book on change-ringing.
Stedman’s “principle on five bells,” printed for the first time in Campanalogia (1677), continues to be rung today. Here are the Stedman Cinques being rung on twelve bells at St Mary-le-Bow.
Writing for the Simons Foundation, an organization dedicated to advancing research in basic science and mathmatics, George Hart describes change ringing from a different perspective:
The art or “exercise” of change ringing is a kind of mathematical team sport dating from the 1600s. It originated in England but now is found all over the world. A band of ringers plays long sequences of permutations on a set of peal bells. Understanding the patterns so they can be played quickly from memory is an exact mental exercise which takes months for ringers to perfect.
Composers of new sequences must understand the combinatorics of permutations, the physical constraints of heavy bells, and the long history of the art and its specialized vocabulary. Change ringing is a little-known but surprisingly rich and beautiful acoustical application of mathematics.
This Simons Foundation video provides a clear and interesting explanation of the relationship of math and music in change ringing.
Members of the Washington, D.C. Ringing Society ringing a long touch of Grandsire Caters.
Change ringing isn’t reserved for holidays or special occasions, but it is a wonderful way to ring out the old and ring in the new. At Eckington Church, Derbyshire, different patterns are rung before and after midnight: a discernible and delightful change in tone. The tolling of the single bell at midnight is especially effective — and you can hear the fireworks from the surrounding countryside.
It’s highly likely that Alfred, Lord Tennyson heard the bells of Waltham Abbey on some New Year’s Eve, and that he was influenced by their sound. In his elegiac poem, “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” written for his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died at twenty-two, the section known as “Ring Out Wild Bells“ beautifully captures the experience of standing between old and new:
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.
Like Tennyson, we often find ourselves caught in the tension between old and new, and that tension can seem particularly sharp at the threshold of a new year. Some experience the year’s turning as a season for reflection on the past; others face the future with a flurry of resolutions. Most, I suspect, do both.
Here at The Task at Hand, the time for ringing out the old and ringing in the new has come. While my blog will continue — for a ninth year! — I’ll be changing its theme and format on New Year’s Day. I’ve hesitated for some time about making the change, since my current legacy theme, once given up, can’t be reclaimed. But the time is right, and move on I will: letting go of the past, and embracing the new.
During the transition, there surely will be some chaos and clanging as I experiment with fonts, colors, formatting, and new pages. But in the end, I hope the changes I ring here will be as pleasing to you as I imagine they will be for me. It is, after all, a new year, and as my dear T.S. Eliot says, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Happy New Year to you all!