We continue our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer. If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’website. Today we come to Herbert’s 22nd image of prayer which is Church Bells beyond the stars heard.
So many poets have been inspired by the sound of bells, for their art also depends on echoes, reflections and reversals, on apparently spontaneous peals of sound that conceal their own patterns. Coleridge heard in the village church bells ‘most articulate sounds of things to come’, and centuries later, Bob Dylan, taking shelter in a church porch during a thunderstorm, seemed to hear in the flashes of thunder and lightening the tolling of great bells, ringing out, in his unforgettable phrase, ‘the chimes of freedom’:
Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
George Herbert also had this sense that the sound of the bells might be going both ways and so he made them an emblem of prayer. His phrase ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’ is deliberately ambiguous: it might mean that our prayers rise beyond the stars, as the sound of our church bells rises to the skies, or it might mean that in prayer our ears are opened at last to hear the bells of heaven, ‘Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind/Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind’ as Dylan would later put it.
Those intuitions of double direction, of falling and rising, and of the time beyond time that every bell brings closer, were all in my mind when I came to compose my own response to Herbert’s phrase, but now, as I post this in the midst of our present crisis I think leo of the yearning I put in the final lines, and the hope of heaven, of the glorious day when the dark veil/ Is lifted and we say the radiant face/Of Love in everything.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
Is it our bells they hear beyond the stars,
Or theirs whose echo sounds to us below?
Or is it both? The music of the spheres
Which we imagine, and yet cannot know,
Whose ringing joy we hear and do not hear,
Elicits a response, and our church bells,
Whose steepled peals still ring in each New Year,
All cry and clamour for the time that tells
Us time itself is over, the dark veil
Is lifted, and we see the radiant face
Of Love in everything; the mournful bell
That tolled for all our funerals gives place
To Heaven’s music truly heard at last,
Our last change rung on earth, our last pain past.