Clover’s Literary Corner: A New Year’s Paradox

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By Clover Carroll


“In Memoriam, A.H.H.“ Canto 106
 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.


 

We hear it everywhere: Ring in the New Year with a new car! Ring out the old, ring in the new with new running shoes / gym membership / resolutions / renovation! The expression is so familiar that a recent Daily Progress headline even used it for a play on words: “Bring out the old, Bring out the new,” it touted (wink wink, nudge nudge)! But how many people actually know the origin of this oft-used cliché? Or that this apparent declaration of joy was originally part of a funeral elegy? The knowledge of its true origin introduces us to one of the major paradoxes of literary history. The poem we know and quote so readily today means something entirely different when read in its original context.

“Ring Out, Wild Bells”—the poem that inspires these ubiquitous New Year’s slogans—is, in reality, an excerpt from a much longer one. “In Memoriam, A.H.H.” was written by Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) to mourn the untimely death of his dear friend and collaborator, Arthur Henry Hallam. Hallam, a college friend who had been engaged to marry Tennyson’s sister Emily, was only 22 when he died suddenly in 1833 of a stroke—an event which forever changed Tennyson. The celebratory elation we hear in “ring out, wild bells” is closer to bitter desperation at the loss of his friend—a deep grief rather than the unbridled joy that appears from a surface reading. But of course, the spirit of reckless abandon that makes this poem so appealing can result from either emotional state.

The full “In Memoriam” (as it is usually known) consists of 133 cantos (nearly 3,000 lines) written in iambic tetrameter (four unstressed-stressed beats per line), with the straightforward rhyme scheme abba cddc etc. Considered one of the single most influential poems of the Victorian era, it is so well-known that in literary circles, this came to be known as the “In Memoriam stanza.” While some consider this meter and rhyme scheme monotonous, to me it conveys resignation and apathy, as if the poet is half dead himself now that his friend is gone. The most famous passage from the full poem is found in Canto 27:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Tennyson became the most prominent and successful British poet of the Victorian age (c. 1837-1901, during the reign of Queen Victoria), and was appointed England’s poet laureate in 1850. While “In Memoriam” is probably his most famous poem, “The Lady of Shallott,” “Ulysses,” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” have also attained the status of classics. “In Memoriam,” published in 1849, is not so much a single elegy as a series of poems written over 17 years after Hallam’s death, “inspired by the changing moods of the author’s regret for his lost friend, and expressing his own anxieties about change, evolution, and immortality” (Oxford Companion to English Literature). It is a powerful requiem in which Tennyson found his true voice. Queen Victoria herself treasured the poem, finding in it great comfort after the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

The mood of “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is more reflective than celebratory, establishing the common view that the new year provides an opportunity for a new beginning. Speaking in apostrophe directly to “the bells,” the poet looks back at “the want, the cares, the sins” of the past, and forward to their hoped for amelioration as he calls for sweeping social change. In this way, the bells become a symbol of a higher power, one capable of guiding humankind to a more enlightened state, and the poem itself becomes a sort of prayer for “the common love of good.” As the poem progresses, the wild bell-ringing sounds an almost frantic note of wishing to obliterate the past and replace it with a cleaner, purer future.

In the first two stanzas, the poet draws a parallel between the end of the year and human mortality. The poet’s choice of the word “him” creates a double meaning, referring both to the year and to his dead friend. The poet prays for an end to the “grief that saps the mind,” but also to the many and varied flaws that he sees in the world around him, such as pride, disease, class inequity, and greed. The power of the poem lies in Tennyson’s ability to transform this personal grief into a more universal lament. “Ring, happy bells, across the snow” expresses this dual thrust in a visual image: the sound of the bells is joyous, but they must overcome the “faithless coldness” of the snow, which may represent both death and mankind’s pain.

In subsequent stanzas, the poet refers to the evils of the Industrial Revolution. Like his contemporary Charles Dickens, Tennyson was shocked and saddened at the terrible poverty, long hours, and dismal and dangerous working conditions, typical for the laboring classes in this era. He admonishes the bells to ring in a new age of reform that would reduce the disparity between social classes and check the rampant greed that led to these conditions. The resulting series of contrasts also expresses Tennyson’s ongoing conflict between faith and doubt. Throughout the poem, the poet fights the urge to give in to despair, but ultimately expresses hope for the future. Happily, many of the reforms Tennyson hoped for have come to pass, at least in the industrialized nations. However, the penultimate stanza’s plea to ring out war and ring in peace is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago.

Of course, one final question that arises from this perennial poetic favorite is, what bells? Where are they? Did you hear any bells at midnight on New Year’s Eve—even in New York City? We can only assume that in 19th c. England, rather than crystal ball drops, fireworks, or confetti showers, the new year was marked at midnight by the pealing of bells from the towers of churches. Now, that is a tradition I would love to see make a comeback!

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