Sunday 18 July 2010

A Peal Of Sullen Bells

I've been idly reading the Wordsworth book of Gothic Short Stories. It's a collection of dark and gloomy tales form the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and it's amazing how formulaic they all are. Moreover, the formula always seems to involve bells.

The very first story, Sir Bertrand, starts with a noble knight riding on a lonely "heath" at sunset and hearing "the sullen toll of a distant bell". The second story, Captive of the Banditti, opens with the words "The sullen tolling of the curfew was heard over the heath", and who should hove into view but a noble knight.

And so on and bloody so forth. Nothing can happen in Gothic literature unless "the clock from the dungeon tower was heard to strike with unusual solemnity." It's rather like the distant barking of a dog in modern literature.

Three points occurred to me:

1) How can a chime be sullen? I mean, I know I'm being a trifle difficult here, but when you start to think about all these sullen bells, you do start to wonder.

2) "The castle bells rang out a merry [!] peal at the approach of a winter twilight" [The Spectral Bride] Again, I'm being a smidgen pedantic, but I know a bellringing fellow who absolutely insists that a peal of bells lasts for several hours. He has rung one peal of bells in his life and this is, apparently, a great achievement.

A bell tower contains a bunch of bells that can be rung in different orders. Each of these orders is called a change, hence ringing the changes (which has nothing to do with spot-the-difference puzzles). There are several thousand possible permutations and a peal of bells contains a minimum of five thousand changes. So a peal is a very long thing indeed. I don't know why anybody would want to ring five thousand changes, but bellringers' minds are funny places that probably shouldn't be investigated too thoroughly.

Originally, a peal was just any stroke on a bell. But by 1796 The Times was able to write that "The peal was divided into ten parts, or courses, of 504 each". So the anonymous author of The Spectral Bride was on the wrong side of pedantry. A peal, like a peck or a swathe, is one of those measurements that should be used with fear and trembling.

3) Bells are not always clichés. Literature contains some beautiful tintinnabulations. Here, in no particular order, are my favourite literary chimes. Obviously, there's the curfew tolling the knell of parting day in Gray's Elegy, but I prefer the The Waste Land, which has:

...each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

And there's John Donne's amazing feat of starting and ending a paragraph with phrases that entered the language whilst nobody can remember the middle:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

There's Falstaff's beautiful "We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow," which Orson Welles used as the title for his film. But the best bell I know is Baudelaire's La Cloche Fêlée, which is incurably French but translates loosely as:

The Broken Bell

Sweet sadness on a winter night to hear,
While on the grate still burns one crackling log
And strange and distant memories appear,
The sound of church-bells singing through the fog.

So sweet a sound, so happy and so sure.
Old age cannot defeat that steadfast bell:
Its firm and faithful call so good, so pure:
The guardian of truth! God’s sentinel!

My soul is broken. Though I sometimes try
To chime triumphant through the freezing night,
Its feeble noises, if they sound at all,
Resemble more the crippled soldier’s sigh
Who, trapped beneath the corpses of the fight,
Must die because he is too weak to crawl.

There are several much better translations (and the original) here. I must go now: Time and the bell has buried the post.

The Inky Fool's new alarm clock

P.S. Does anyone remember Mr Clapper?


  1. The best book about peal ringing - and murder - is Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors. I learned more about change ringing from that book than I'd ever heard anywhere else. And of course, it's a Wimsey mystery :-)

  2. The Antipodean, thought "Never heard of him, but he's gotta be stopped!", realised how obscure a quote it was, and then decided to get on with it, so she19 July 2010 at 16:59

    What a diverting post - I got sidetracked as you can only do on the internet. Well, as you can only quite so quickly on the internet. I started in Gray's churchyard, noticing how noisy it was for the first time. (No barking dogs, though.) His 'pealing anthem' led to the 'pealing organ' as mentioned by Milton, which led to a bit more Milton. I thought I should come back to the subject at hand and dutifully read some TS Eliot which led to some Beckett and that led to some very interesting articles, including a deeply, deeply disturbing article on applying Beckettian principles to marketing. The disturbing part was that it kind of made sense, which I don't think it should have. Another one was on real estate (long story) and will be appended to the relevant post. Who knew pealing would spread so far?

    I also enjoyed The Broken Bell and all its translations: very handy having them all lined up like that, and it brings out how multi-faceted language and poetry are.

  3. It's interesting, the funereal connection to both the tolling bells and far-off barking dogs (as guardians of the underworld) in these literary trends. Maybe..a reminder to the character of their mortality, the human condition, etc.. Or maybe not.