This poem was first published in 1924 in Chills and Fever, a collection compiled by Alfred A. Knopf of Ransom’s poetry. Although ‘Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter‘ is quite short, it is incredibly effective. Readers should feel something of the same shock and surprise at the death of this young and lively girl. There is no discernible reason why she should’ve lost her life so soon.
Explore Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter
‘Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter’ by John Crowe Ransom is a sorrowful poem in which the speaker explores the life and death of a young girl.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker explains to the reader that there was a young, lighthearted, and playful young girl who passed away suddenly. Moving away from this tragedy, the speaker spends a few stanzas discussing her fondness for spending time outside in an apple orchard, chasing geese, and wrestling with her own shadow. Then, suddenly, utilizing a great example of juxtaposition, the speaker transitions back into expressions of morning and loss at the sudden and unexpected death of this young girl.
You can read the full poem here.
Stanzas One and Two
There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond
In the first lines of ‘Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,’ the poet speaker notes how a particular young girl was so full of life. The use of the word “was” in the first line informs readers immediately that this life, which is depicted as “such a speed” and “such lightness,” no longer exists. Knowing that the poem is an elegy, it becomes clear immediately that the speaker is discussing the death of a young girl. This sets the tone for what’s to come. The speaker is mourning her loss and, in the following lines, recalls some of their memories of her life and how it felt to learn that she had passed away.
The speaker also notes right away that everyone is astonished by her death. No one expected her to die, a feeling that is reiterated in the last lines of the poem.
In order to bring more feeling into the text, the speaker relays images he remembers of the young girl playing by herself, taking arms “against her shadow,” or playing near the pond. She could be seen among the orchid trees and beyond running, playing, and enjoying her life.
Stanzas Three and Four
The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!
In a particularly memorable section of the text, the speaker recalls watching how the young girl disturbed the lazy geese “like a snow cloud “who were stepping proudly and crying out as she ran around them. There is a clever and interesting metaphor in the second line in which the speaker describes the goose “dripping their snow” or excrement on the green grass. Additionally, these lines contain several examples of alliteration. “Green grass” is one good example, as is “stopping, sleepy.”
In the fourth stanza, the speaker refers to the young girl who was soon to meet her death as “the little / Lady.” She had a “tireless heart” that empowered her to run free, as she pleased, and force the geese to “rise / From their noon apple-dreams.” Sleeping in the orchard, the speaker implies, the geese care about nothing more than what they can get to eat and how they can rest.
This section of text is more lighthearted and playful. This is further through the poet’s use of an exclamation point at the end of line four of stanza four.
But now go the bells, and we are ready,
Lying so primly propped.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker returns to the dark and gloomy subject matter—the little girl’s death. The “bells” that were referenced in the title are included in the poem itself in the first line of stanza five. They refer to the tolling of the church bells ringing out in honor of, and morning for, John Whiteside’s daughter, the little girl who was just seen playing outside and has now passed away. Just as suddenly, the poem transitions from the images of the keys and the playful young girl, it returns readers to the knowledge that the girl died and is now “primly propped” at her funeral.
Interestingly, the poet uses simple words like “vexed” and “sternly stopped” to describe their and the communities reaction and movements in regard to the young girl. Although it’s clear that the speaker is moved by her death, the poet does not utilize particularly mournful language in the poem. Instead, the description of the young girl’s death seems almost clinical. They describe the speaker stopping by her funeral to say that they are “vexed” at her death.
Structure and Form
‘Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter’ by John Crowe Ransom is a five-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD, changing end sounds in the next two stanzas.
There is no single pattern of meter used in the text, but the lines do come close to following a pattern. The first line of each stanza, except stanza three, is written in iambic pentameter. Additionally, the following two lines come close, usually somewhere between eight and ten syllables. The final line of each stanza is the shortest, almost all of them are written in iambic trimeter.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Simile: can be seen when the poet creates a comparison between two things using “like” or “as.” For example, “The lazy geese, like a snow cloud.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “primly propped” in the last line of the poem and “rod” and “rise” in line two of the fourth stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “There was such speed in her little body, / And such lightness in her footfall.”
- Juxtaposition: one of the most importnat devices used in the short poem. The poet intentionally juxtaposes the images of the lively and playful young girl against the images of, and reactions to, her death.
The main theme of this poem is loss. Specifically, unexpected loss. The speaker describes their, and the communities, reaction to the death of John Whiteside’s daughter. Throughout, she remains are named, but is referred to as a lovely, energetic, and endearing young girl who suddenly died.
The purpose is to explore shared grief within a small community after a young girl passes away. The poet was also interested in expressing how sudden such a loss can come. One moment the girl was alive, playing with her shadow and bothering the geese in an apple orchard, and the next, she was propped up at her funeral.
The speaker is someone who lives in the same community as John Whiteside and his recently deceased daughter. It is unclear whether or not the speaker is intended to be the poet himself, but, whoever they are, they are experiencing at least some feelings of grief in regard to the death of this young girl.
The message is that death can come suddenly and unexpectedly, even for the young. No one in the community, especially not the speaker, would’ve expected John Whiteside’s daughter to pass away. In fact, as the first stanza explains, she was exceptionally full of life.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other John Crowe Ransom poems. For example:
- ‘Piazza Piece’ – a two-stanza poem that uses mismatching structure and elements to bring the reader into a historic world.
Other related poems include:
- ‘On My First Daughter’ by Ben Jonson – an elegy written in memory of Johnson’s daughter.
- ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ by William Butler Yeats – speaks about the poet’s family. It demonstrates his concern and anxiety over the future wellbeing and prospects of his daughter, Anne.