Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Passing Bell

The best-known use of "the passing bell" in English literature comes from John Donne: "And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."  John Donne, Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624) (italics in the original).  But, given the preoccupation of Elizabethan and 17th-century poets with Mortality and Death, the bell's echo is often heard in the poetry of those times.

     Upon a Passing Bell

Hark how the passing bell
Rings out thy neighbour's knell,
And thou for want of wit,
Or grace, ne'er think'st on it,
     Because thou yet art well.

Fool!  in two days or three,
The same may ring for thee;
For Death's impartial dart
Will surely hit thy heart;
     He will not take a fee.

Since then he will not spare,
See thou thyself prepare
Against that dreadful day
When thou shalt turn to clay,
     This bell bids thee beware.

Thomas Washbourne (1606-1687), in Norman Ault (editor), Seventeenth Century Lyrics (1928).

Charles Oppenheimer, "The Old Tolbooth, Kirkcudbright" (1931)

None of this ought to be viewed as gloomy.  I'm not one to be preoccupied with death.  But it ought not to be pushed away.  A thought of death once a day is a useful corrective, a bestower of perspective.

                    Fatum Supremum

All buildings are but monuments of death,
     All clothes but winding sheets for our last knell,
All dainty fattings for the worms beneath,
     All curious music but our passing bell:
Thus death is nobly waited on, for why
All that we have is but death's livery.

Anonymous (c. 1640), in Ibid.  "For why" (line 5) means "because."  Ibid, page 150.

Charles Oppenheimer, "From a Tower, Kirkcudbright"

Finally, there is this, which is harrowing, but marvelous.

               My Midnight Meditation

Ill-busied man!  why shouldst thou take such care
To lengthen out thy life's short calendar,
When every spectacle thou look'st upon
Presents and acts thy execution?
     Each drooping season and each flower doth cry,
     'Fool!  as I fade and wither, thou must die.'

The beating of thy pulse (when thou art well)
Is just the tolling of thy passing bell:
Night is thy hearse, whose sable canopy
Covers alike deceased day and thee.
     And all those weeping dews which nightly fall,
     Are but the tears shed for thy funeral.

Henry King (1592-1669), in Ibid.

I'm very fond of "Ill-busied man!" and of "The beating of thy pulse (when thou art well)":  the parenthetical addition of "(when thou art well)" is a lovely touch.  And there's that wonderful "Fool!" again -- as in the sixth line of "Upon a Passing Bell."

Charles Oppenheimer, "Kirkcudbright under Snow" (1934)


Fred said...


Oppenheimer really liked that view, didn't he?

This is definitely not a 21st century sensibility--quite the opposite I think.

Anonymous said...

If we extend Larkin's telephone ringing in his "Aubade" to the plethora of "communication devices" in use today, we see our feckless and vacuous culture measuring out its mediocre days with inane words, a surfeit of the superficial and the absurd--the mindless murder of sensibility.

The days are measured no matter the way they are measured. Listen carefully and you can hear through the blaring and beeping and blooping of today's instruments the attenuated but unmistakable and dark plaintive message Donne's bell tolled.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: lovely paintings, aren't they? And, yes, not a 21st century sensibility. For which we can be grateful!

As always, It's good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you very much for your thoughts. Your mentioning of modern devices reminded me of the times that I have visited the UK and Europe: upon returning home, I have always missed the sounds of the church bells.

Thanks again.

Unknown said...

Stephen: “When thou art (yet) well.” This thought is often on my mind, and – if the dissociation is not too great – I was reminded of such contingencies when listening to a Normandy Campaign survivor giving an account of his wartime experiences: “As I stood, unhurt, two of my friends were killed either side of me.”

Ah, yes, “Ill–busied man!” Wilfully accumulating ‘against that day’, as might be said. But truly, we bring nothing into the world, and we take nothing out (and if we did, would we gaze at it for all eternity? Ah, the boredom after the first million years!)

Thank you for putting together three perfectly matched poems.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to report that a church bell is most pleasantly audible in our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The recording (which does sound like real bells) tells the hours & half-hours from 8am to 8pm. I love hearing it.

Stephen Pentz said...

Peter: I greatly appreciate your bringing in the anecdote of the veteran of Normandy -- those who have been in that position have no need of passing bells (or poems) as a reminder, do they?

I agree about "ill-busied": those sorts of wonderful phrases are what I love about that period of English poetry.

I'm pleased you liked the combination of poems.

As ever, thank you for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: it's very nice to hear from you again.

You are fortunate to have the sound of bells. We forget how different the world used to sound. I remember reading a passage in a book once (I forget the source now) in which the author tried to show how different early Europe was from the modern world by focusing on how different the sound environment was -- in particular, the greater spaces of silence, punctuated by church bells. I think it is a great loss.

Thank you very much for visiting again.