Sunday, September 24, 2017

John Donne and Elizabeth Jennings: Bells

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe;
Every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
If a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
As well as if a Promontorie were,
As well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were;
Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
-- John Donne --
Devotions upon Emergent Occasion
Meditation XVII



"The bells renew the town, discover it
And give it back itself again, the man
Pulling the rope collects the houses as
Thoughts gather in the mind unscanned, he is
Crowding the town together from the night
And making bells the morning, in remote

Control of every life (for the bells shout 'Wake'
And shake out dreams, though it is he who pulls
The sleep aside.)  But not into his thought
Do men continue as in lives of power;

For when each bell is pulled sufficiently
He never sees himself as any cause
Or need; the sounds had left his hands to sing
A meaning for each listening separately,
A separate meaning for the single choice.

Yet bells retire to silence, need him when
Time must be shown a lucid interval
And men look up as if the air were full
Of birds descending, bells exclaiming in
His hands but shouting wider than his will."

-- Elizabeth Jennings --
Collected Poems

Several days ago I read Elizabeth Jennings' poem, and it has stayed with me, occasionally popping up in odd moments.   A day or so ago, early in the morning  "when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky" Donne's poem emerged from somewhere.

Both poems focus on the human community, but from a slightly different perspective, or so it seems to me.  Donne's poem asserts the close relationship of all humans, so much so that the death of one "diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;"  However he just asserts it and gives no reason why this is so.  Conversely, I suppose that each birth has the opposite effect: it increases him.

Of course, it is the last two lines. " And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;/
It tolls for thee." that provides a link to Jennings poem.  Jennings' poem proposes that it is the sound of the bells that "collects the houses" and to some extent controls their lives.

The title, however, is "Bell-Ringer," not "Bells."  Jennings tells us that the bell-ringer is not aware of his power or role in the community.  His job is simply to ring the bells at a specified time, and that's all there is to it.

Are there others who possess and exercise similar powers but are unaware of it?  

One last point:  I wonder, though, is it the sound of the bells, or  something signified by the bells.   I have a block, I fear, for I can hardly think of bells without thinking of church and church bells.  I have a problem considering bells in a non-religious setting, so I can't go beyond thinking that the sound of the bells may symbolize a faith that unites the human community.

Are there other possibilities? Could it be language or culture?


  1. It is fascinating that you ave connected these two poems. They seem to have a natural tie. I never thought of them together before but I think that I will do so in the future whenever I think of either.

    Bells, church and religion are of course connected. Bells are also interconnected with death and loss.

  2. Brian Joseph--I had read Donne's works long ago, but I just recently read one of Elizabeth Jennings's poems and that was in an anthology. She is someone I've now been looking more carefully at.

    How familiar are you with Elizabeth Jennings?

    Bells measure the passage of time, as well as joyful occasions also, probably more often in small towns and in the past than now.
    And, it may not be limited to Western Civ either, for there are several haiku I can remember that also include bells or the sound of bells.

    Ah, maybe a possible post about haiku bells.

  3. i see, behind the sense of the poems, an idea of mankind as a sort of whole, with a multitude of integral parts that all work together... an attractive idea, but hard to accept: it has more to do with the image of a clockwork universe that was associated with planetary motion four hundred or so years ago...
    bell ringing used to be an art in England and elsewhere: series of rhythmic changes by up to twelve bell rope pullers that could last up to twelve hours... the "concerts" were associated with various festivals and celebrations... one of dorothy Sayers' books, "The Nine Tailors", dealt in part with Wimsey participating in a bell ringing session in addition to his solution of a local murder...

    1. I read Sayers' story and found it interesting that the order of Bells was so specific that people knew who had died simply by the ringing.

    2. The Nine Tailors is my favorite Wimsey novel. There was a sense of community in that novel that didn't exist in the other Wimsey mysteries, and the bells had much to do with that. The people there worked together.

  4. Mudpuddle--I see the "whole" in the poems, but not necessarily the "clockwork universe" aspect. I think we are affected by others but not necessarily controlled. We may respond but those responses are unique, individual, and not necessarily described as interlocking gears.

    I also thought of Sayers' _The Nine Tailors_ while contemplating the poems. It's my favorite Wimsey mystery.

  5. Not a deep thinker, I read Donne and think only of death, but I read Jennings and think only of life. Hmmm.

    1. R.T.--so, you don't see any connection between them?

    2. Bells signal control, but from whence comes that control: God or people? I'm afraid that's all I have for you.

    3. R.T.--I don't think there are answers which would satisfy everybody. Those are the ones that have been around for many thousands of years, and will be around for at least as long in the future.

  6. These discussions reminds me of Poe's "The Bells," and of all the meanings bells could have besides religious meanings--presence and absence, death and life, great joy and deep sadness, alarm and the end of the need for alarm. Bells must have played a large role in life of some communities, back in the long-ago, a role integrated in daily life in the same way religion was integrated, but separate from religion as well as being a part.

    1. Pops--yes, that was another poem that came to mind while thinking about these two. In smaller communities, I suspect the sole possessor of bells would be the churches.

      It would be hard then and there to separate the religious from the secular, or so it seems to me. Would ringing the bells on Midnight at New Year's Eve to bring in the New Year be a religious or a secular action, or perhaps a mix of the two?

  7. I really like Donne and this poem is powerful. I agree as Hemingway aptly showed in his book by the same title that we cannot devalue other people's lives without diminishing ourselves.

    There's a whole history of bell ringing and churches. They connoted death (as in Donne's poem); the start of worship services; weddings; celebrations etc..

    It also denotes a time when people were connected to their neighbors. Kind of sad that we no longer have that sense of community. Not many churches have bells anymore.

    1. Sharon--yes, I think you're right. Few churches built recently have bell towers. We live in a fragmented world. I'm closer to people on the Net and I know more about them than I do about my neighbors.

      The Donne poem is powerful, and it has stayed with me for many years now.

      Any thoughts on Elizabeth Jennings poem? Have you read much of her poetry?

    2. I had to read Jennings' poem a few times. I'm not sure what it means other than the obvious. I read up on her background. She's a remarkable women. She desegregated the New York City transit in 1855. As a black woman she boarded a "white" horse drawn street car and refused to get off. The conductor physically expelled her but she went to court and won.

    3. Sharon--I think that's another Elizabeth Jennings. This Elizabeth Jennings is an English woman who was born in 1926.