‘Bell Birds’ by Henry Kendall was first published in November of 1867 in Australia’s The Sydney Morning Herald. Upon its publication the poem was printed with the title utilized in this analysis, ‘Bell Birds’ but has since appeared hyphenated, (‘Bell-Birds’) due to a past catalog listing. In its final form, Kendall released it in his collection, Leaves from Australian Forests in 1869.
The poem contains four eight-line stanzas, or octaves, and one final ten-line stanza. Each of these contains lines that are of a similar, long length and utilize a great deal of repetition. This can be seen in the words, “beauty,” “singing” and “birds.”
In addition to the precise reuse of words, Kendall has chosen to make use of alliteration, or the repetition of the same letter or sound at the beginning of closely situated words. One can see this quite well within lines seven and eight of the first stanza. Here, the words “softer,” “slumber,” “sweeter” and “singing” appear in the same line. They are then followed by a repetition of the end sound “-ing” with “singing,” “running” and “ringing.”
Since its publication ‘Bell Birds’ has become one of Australia’s best-loved piece of poetry. It has been included in various newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. These include Selections from Australian Poets from 1925, The Penguin Book of Australian Verse published in 1972, and more recently Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature published in 2009.
Summary of Bell Birds
The poem begins with the speaker describing the general outline of the forest. It is a place in which he can see the “mountain” and take a long look at the “mosses and sedges.” Additionally, he can hear the waters of the rivers and the singing of the “bell-birds.”
As the poem continues the speaker devotes his time to describe what the best season of the year, spring, is like. This is when the birds are at their most passionate and the yellow and golden wattles are shining. Eventually, summer comes but the beauty is not decreased. This does mark a change in the text though. The speaker introduces a “wayfarer” who is likely a separate version of himself. This person is seeking out relief in the woods, in the form of water, and the birds guide him to it.
In conclusion, he states that he wants to be able to capture the beauty of the forest in his “Song” or writings. This would allow him to take it back to the city where he needs it the most.
Analysis of Bell Birds
By channels of coolness the echoes are calling,
And down the dim gorges I hear the creek falling;
It lives in the mountain, where moss and the sedges
Touch with their beauty the banks and the ledges;
Through brakes of the cedar and sycamore bowers
Struggles the light that is love to the flowers.
And, softer than slumber, and sweeter than singing,
The notes of the bell-birds are running and ringing.
In the first stanza of ‘Bell Birds’, the speaker begins by describing the initial setting. He is out in the woods, somewhere remote enough that they can hear the “echoes calling.” These are the deeper sounds of the forest being reflected out and back throughout the distance. There are also the sounds of the “creek falling.” This hints at a waterfall of some kind and repeats the phrase, “channels of coolness.”
In the next lines, he speaks of “It.” This is likely a reference to the water. It is said to “live in the mountain.” It resides somewhere secret where beautiful things such as “moss” and “sedges” touch the “banks and the ledges.” The purpose of the rhyme scheme is evident in these lines. It creates a sing-song-like pattern to one’s speech (especially when read allowed). This pattern increases the mystery of the landscape and therefore its allure.
Moving away from “it” the speaker describes how light passes into the forest and moves through the trees. It is desperately needed by the “flowers” and fights to reach them. In a very calming concluding couplet the speaker states that the “bell-birds” are “running and ringing” through the land.
The silver-voiced bell-birds, the darlings of day-time,
They sing in September their songs of the May-time.
When shadows wax strong and the thunder-bolts hurtle,
They hide with their fear in the leaves of the myrtle;
When rain and the sunbeams shine mingled together
They start up like fairies that follow fair weather,
And straightway the hues of their feathers unfolden
Are the green and the purple, the blue and the golden.
In the second stanza, he elaborates on the beauty of the”bell-birds.” They are the “darlings of day-time”. Here, they are at their most beautiful. Kendall is seeking to create a poignant image of these animals. He takes the time to describes their fears and their natural instincts to “hide…in the leaves of the myrtle” tree.
Once the things they are frightened of, such as storms and shadows, pass, the birds emerge. They become a part of the “sunbeams” and appear like “fairies.” Here again, is another example of the magical nature of the text. The speaker is putting a great deal of emphasis on how the birds appear. Their feathers “unfold” and reveal their “hues.”
October, the maiden of bright yellow tresses,
Loiters for love in these cool wildernesses;
Loiters knee-deep in the grasses to listen,
Where dripping rocks gleam and the leafy pools glisten.
Then is the time when the water-moons splendid
Break with their gold, and are scattered or blended
Over the creeks, till the woodlands have warning
Of songs of the bell-bird and wings of the morning.
In the third octave of ‘Bell Birds’, the speaker describes what the season of October is like in the forest. When it comes, it is like a “maiden of bright and yellow tresses.” The change in the weather is remarkable as is the shift in the colours of the wattles. It seems to him that October, here personified as a maiden, “Loiters” in the forest. She is wanting to spend as much time as possible in this beautiful world. The speaker describes her as being “knee-deep in the grasses.” She is seeking out the sound of the “dripping rocks” and the “leafy pools.”
The season is celebrated by the speaker. The bell-birds are surely in the background contributing to the mood of the landscape. The final images are likely of the golden wattles, reflected in the pools of water that also reflect the moon. The reflection moves “Over the creeks” until the morning comes and the “bell-bird” is ready to sing again.
Welcome as waters unkissed by the summers
Are the voices of bell-birds to thirsty far-comers.
When fiery December sets foot in the forest,
And the need of the wayfarer presses the sorest,
Pent in the ridges for ever and ever.
The bell-birds direct him to spring and to river,
With ring and with ripple, like runnels whose torrents
Are toned by the pebbles and leaves in the currents.
The season has changed by the time the reader gets to the fourth stanza. Here, it is December, the beginning of summer in Australia. When the month “sets foot in the forest” one knows that “need” is going to be pressing harder. To those who are seeking out some respite from the hard times of summer or hard times in general, the bell-birds provide that stimulus. In addition to their beautiful song, the birds are able to guide the “wayfarer” to what they need, the “spring” and the “river.”
The movement of the water, and the sounds that it makes, are mimicked in the alliterative choices Kendall makes. One should take note of the use of the words “ring,” “runnel” and “ripple” as well as “torrents” and “toned.”
Often I sit, looking back to a childhood
Mixt with the sights and the sounds of the wildwood,
Longing for power and the sweetness to fashion
Lyrics with beats like the heart-beats of passion —
Songs interwoven of lights and of laughters
Borrowed from bell-birds in far forest rafters;
So I might keep in the city and alleys
The beauty and strength of the deep mountain valleys,
Charming to slumber the pain of my losses
With glimpses of creeks and a vision of mosses.
In the final stanza of ‘Bell Birds’, the speaker refers to himself for the first time. In the previous stanzas, he had been speaking from a distance, describing something that he knew intimately. Now, he projects his own personal experiences onto the landscape. First, he mentions his own past. There was a period in which he was filled with the “sights and sounds of the wildwood.”
The forest would provide him with contrasting emotions. There was a need for “power” and “sweetness.” Both of these elements would’ve given him the ability to write with the “heart-beats of passion” one can find in the woods.
From these lines, a reader can understand what it is about this particular landscape that is so moving to the speaker (who one might assume is the writer himself). This place represents the pinnacle of artistic achievement. He wants to write as complexly as the woods are. Particularly, he would “borrow” from the bell-birds.
In the final lines, he summarizes his purpose in taking inspiration from the woods. If he was able to accomplish this successfully, he could “keep in the city and alleys / The beauty and strength” that he feels in the valleys. The final lines state that he wants to use this peace in his everyday life. He has suffered a loss that needs soothing, especially during his “slumber.” The speaker wants to see “vision[s]” of “mosses” and “creeks” rather than his reality.