Alfred Lord Tennyson

Ring Out Wild Bells by Alfred Tennyson

Ring Out Wild Bells is about the new year and all the ways the world could change for the better. Tennyson takes the phrase “ring out the old, ring in the new” and twists it in order to “ring out” all the negatives he sees in the world and “ring in” more positive things.

Ring Out Wild Bells By Alfred Tennyson


Form and Tone

Ring Out Wild Bells is written in free verse it is separated into eight stanzas which are all four lines long. Each line is roughly 8 syllables long and uses 4 iambs giving the poem a very even rhythm. There is also a consistent rhyming pattern which adds to the almost musical nature of the poem. The rhyming pattern is (ABBA) The tone of this poem is debatable as it is part protest poem and part ode to what the future should look like.


Ring Out Wild Bells Analysis

First Stanza

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 Wild Bells is themed loosely around New Year and its meaning and so it’s no surprise to see bells mentioned in the first stanza. However, they are described as being wild. This is a striking word to describe them and helps set the underlying tone for the rest of Ring Out Wild Bells. The allusions to the holiday season continue with the narrator describing the light as being “frosty”. The words used are quite evocative as the narrator uses the words dying and die in the last two lines, primarily about the year itself. I think this is describing the fact that the year is drawing to a conclusion, albeit in a particularly powerful way. The second time death is used is in the last line of this stanza and refers to a nebulous “him” who is this? Santa? Jesus?


Second Stanza

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.

The first line introduces are a familiar concept of ringing in the new year. Out with the old and in with the new etc. Here bells are described as being happy rather than wild, this creates a much softer image. It then proceeds to talk about the year going and instructs to let him go. Here is this “man” once again, who is he? Is the year being personified? Is the narrator telling us to let go of the previous year? Or is this referencing an actual person? The last line of this stanza is a paraphrase of the first line. Only it’s meaning has been changed significantly. Is the suggestion here that the “old” is synonymous with the false and the “new” with the true? It certainly could be interpreted that way.


Third Stanza

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.

Here we see this idea of bell ringing continue. Here the text is telling us to “ring out” grief. This is an interesting way of saying we need to let go of things like grief. The emotion is described aptly as sapping the mind. The next line is quite clever, the word “here” is in particular very cunning. Its insertion suggests that we don’t see people here, I think the here refers to the mortal realm. The suggestion being inferred that we will see them again but somewhere else, IE on the other side, or in heaven. In the final two lines of the stanza, the narrator calls for an end to disputes between the classes. These are all concepts that seem appropriate at Christmas and New Year and tie in with the traditional meaning of the celebrations.


Fourth Stanza

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

The negativity felt towards the old system is even more clear here as once again the word dying is used. The things that happened last year (and probably before that) clearly are felt to have not been working by Tennyson. When he refers to party Strife in the second stanza is he referring to bickering politicians? This could be the case. It is clear either way that he feels the system is broken and he calls for a nobler way of life and, better manners and purer laws.


Fifth Stanza

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.

We see in this stanza of Ring Out Wild Bells the narrator once again describing the negatives that they see. The things they want to oust going into a new year. What is interesting is that you can see why they want to get rid of want and sin, but care? Perhaps they are suggesting they want to get rid of caring for frivolous things. In the second line the cold is one again mentioned but this time it is ascribed to the era that they live in. The narrator even states that they want their own moaning to be “rung out”! Perhaps a bit of self-deprecation just to add a pinch of humour? They request a “fuller minstrel” a minstrel is another word of a performer.


Sixth Stanza

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.

The first line of this stanza seems to be an attack on nepotism and falsely placed patriotism. Although when you read on he continues to attack the ideas of civic slander so perhaps he is more unhappy about the local state of his home country. The things he wants these concepts to be replaced with are hard not to appreciate he wants to “ring in” love and truth and goodness. How can you disagree that those aren’t good things to be espoused heading into a new year?


Seventh Stanza

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.

In this stanza, he argues that we should get rid of disease, which is perhaps a bit hopeful! In the second line, I think the suggestion is that the love of money is something that should disappear with the new year and finally he turns his attention to war. He wants to usher it out and replace it with peace. Whilst it would be amazing if that happened it is unlikely. I think this highlights the idealist nature of Ring Out Wild Bells.


Eighth Stanza

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.

Interestingly this stanza starts with the narrator talking about introducing rather than doing away with something. He talks about how he wants mankind to be going forward: Valiant, free, big-hearted and kind. The last line is interesting as he talks about ringing in Christ. Is this a reference to the second coming? Does he think this is the only way that the world could be the way he wanted?


About Alfred Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson Is well regarded as one of the most popular British poets of all time. He emanated from royal and noble ancestry though was brought up in a middle-class household. A lot of his work was rooted in mythology such as Ulysses. As well as being a poet Tennyson tried his hand at stage plays but these are not considered to be particularly good. Tennyson has coined a lot of phrases that have become part of the British Vernacular such as “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all” and “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die”. In 1850 Tennyson succeeded Wordsworth as Britain’s poet Laureate, which is one of the most prestigious honour a British poet can receive.

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Lee-James Bovey Poetry Expert
Lee-James, a.k.a. LJ, has been a Poem Analysis team member ever since Novemer 2015, providing critical analysis of poems from the past and present. Nowadays, he helps manage the team and the website.
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