02 January 2012

Christmas Poems (19): Ring out the old, ring in the new, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

“Ring out the old, ring in the new,/ Ring, happy bells, across the snow ...” the bells of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in the snows of last January (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church of England, today [2 January] commemorates Saint Basil the Great (379) and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (389), Bishops and Teachers of the Faith. Today, many of us are still ringing in the New Year, even if we are returning to work this morning after a long holiday. How many of us heard over the last few days those words written in 1850 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892):

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.

For my Christmas poem this morning I have chosen ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells,’ which was published by Tennyson in 1850, the year he was appointed Poet Laureate. It forms part of ‘In Memoriam,’ Tennyson’s elegy to Arthur Henry Hallam, his sister’s fiancé, who had died at the age of 22.

Although Tennyson has probably gone out of fashion, many of us remember reading at school poems such as ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ ‘Crossing the Bar,’ ‘The Lady of Shalott,’ ‘Locksley Hall’ and ‘Ulysses.’ A number of phrases from Tennyson’s writings have become commonplace in the English language, including “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” “’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all,” “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die,” “My strength is as the strength of ten, / Because my heart is pure,” “Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers,” and “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.”

But for a long time I had forgotten ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’ until I was reintroduced to listening to Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man, where the second, seventh and eighth stanzas are set to music by Jenkins in the finale (‘Better is Peace’).

Tennyson was born in Lincolnshire in 1809, the son and grandson of Lincolnshire rectors. His father, the Revd George Clayton Tennyson, was the Rector of Somersby; his maternal grandfather, the Revd Stephen Fytche, was the Vicar of Saint James’s, Louth, and of Withcall (1780).

Trinity College, Cambridge ... Tennyson entered as an undergraduate in 1827 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After attending local grammar schools, Tennyson entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827, where Byron and Thackeray were undergraduates too in the early 19th century.

At Cambridge, he joined the Cambridge Apostles, a discussion group that began in Trinity in the 1820s and 1830s, and that has played a part in forming the minds of many leading members of the British intelligensia. Other “apostles” around that time included George Tomlinson, later Bishop of Gibraltar, the theologian and Christian Socialist Frederick Denison Maurice, Charles Darwin’s brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin, the future Archbishop of Dublin Richard Chenevix Trench, and the Dublin-born theologian Fenton John Anthony Hort. Later members included AN Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, GM Trevelyan, EM Forster, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Rupert Brooke, Lionel Penrose, Eric Hobsbawn, Jonathan Miller and Anthony Kelly – and the Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.

Soon after going up to Cambridge, Tennyson published his first collection, Poems by Two Brothers (1827). Two years later, in 1829, he was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal at Cambridge for ‘Timbuctoo,’ and in 1830 he published the collection Poems Chiefly Lyrical, which included two of his most celebrated poem, ‘Claribel’ and ‘Mariana.’

However, the death of his father in 1831 forced Tennyson to leave Cambridge without receiving his degree, and he lived with his mother at his father’s former rectory for some years. In 1833, he published his second book of poetry, which included ‘The Lady of Shalott.’

He later moved to High Beach, near Epping Forest in Essex, and from there to Chapel House in Twickenham. His two-volume collection in 1842 included ‘Locksley Hall’ and ‘Ulysses.’ In ‘Ulysses,’ Tennyson had a very different understanding about Odysseus and his return home than the approach of Constantine Cavafy in yesterday’s poem, ‘Ithaka’ [1 January].

Tennyson reached the height of his career and his fame in 1850 with the publication of his masterpiece, In Memoriam AHH, a tribute to his closest friend at Cambridge, Arthur Henry Hallam.

In Memoriam was an immediate success, and that year Tennyson was appointed Poet Laureate in succession to William Wordsworth. His later works included ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1855), and in 1885 he was given a peerage.

Tennyson was born into a strongly clerical family, and I mentioned on Saturday [31 December] how some influences from Tennyson are reflected in TS Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding.’ But Tennyson’s views of Christianity were often unconventional. In In Memoriam, he wrote: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” In Maud (1855), he said: “The churches have killed their Christ.” In Locksley Hall Sixty Years After he wrote: “Christian love among the churches look’d the twin of heathen hate.” In his play, Becket, he declared: “We are self-uncertain creatures, and we may, Yea, even when we know not, mix our spites and private hates with our defence of Heaven.”

Tennyson died on 6 October 1892 at Aldworth, at the age of 83, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. A memorial was erected in All Saints’ Church, Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight, where the rest of his family is buried, and there is a large statue of him the ante-chapel in Trinity College Cambridge.

Tennyson’s statue in the Ante-Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

According to a popular story, the “wild bells” in the poem were the bells of the church at Waltham Abbey. The story is told that Tennyson was staying nearby at High Beach when he heard the abbey bells being rung. It was a stormy night, and some accounts say the bells were being swung by the wind rather than deliberately.

However, Tennyson may also have been influenced by his memories of the bells in the Clock Tower in the Great Court at Trinity College, Cambridge. The clock strikes the hour twice, first on a low note and then on a much higher one – Wordsworth had earlier described it in his ‘Prelude’ as the clock “with a male and female voice.”

The ‘Great Court Run’ involves attempting to run around Great Court within the time it takes the clock to strike the hour of 12, including the preparatory chiming of the four quarters and the two sets of 12 as the clock strikes each hour twice. The course is 347.5 metres long and striking the hour at 12 can take between 43 and 45 seconds. Great Court is the largest court or quad in either Cambridge or Oxford, and Trinity undergraduates regularly attempt this feat, while athletically-inclined members of Trinity attempt the run every year at noon on the day of the Matriculation Dinner. The Great Court Run forms a central scene in David Putnam’s film Chariots of Fire (1981), although it was filmed in Eton and not in Trinity.

Despite Tennyson’s often belligerent nationalism, this poem expresses interesting values that make this an appropriate poem to select this morning. Despite Tennyson’s unconventional ideas about Christianity, he concludes with visionary hope in the prayer: “Ring in the Christ that is to be.”

The bells in the Clock Tower in Trinity College, Cambridge, strike the hour twice, first on a low note and then on a much higher one (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ring out the old, ring in the new, 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 thy 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.

Tomorrow: ‘Song at the Year’s Turning’ by RS Thomas

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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