Lent With Herbert Day 24: Church Bells Beyond the Stars Heard

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.

Church bells beyond the stars heard

 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.



Filed under Poems

9 responses to “Lent With Herbert Day 24: Church Bells Beyond the Stars Heard

  1. George C. Roberts

    Malcolm, this is one of the most moving of your sonnets so far, for me. As priests, we preach at so many funerals and, at times, it can be such a challenge, particularly when we have not had the blessing of knowing the deceased person well.

    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.

    “A new heaven and a new earth…where sorrow and sighging flee away.” The promise of God’s contining presence that, because of what Christ has done, connects us to the new heaven which remakes this, so often, challenged earth. Thank you, for your lovely sonnet.

  2. eleanor prugh

    Malcolm, I do not comment “lightly” or often. Your series is beautiful. This poem feels relevant for me, an octogenarian, now wondering whether “now” is the time I might hear Heaven’s music at last, or simply be reassured that it exists.

    • malcolmguite

      Dear Eleanor thanks for this. If my poem has helped you hear an echo of Heavens music and reassured you of that joy to come than I am honoured and the poem is fulfilled

  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6JhTSzZXzg Couldln’t help but hear this in the midst of it all. Love the Byrds.

  4. Anna Weston

    Dear Malcolm,

    It is hard to express the joy and inspiration that your poems give me. I have been a lover of Herbert from a very young age, and your response to his writing takes me deeper into his thoughts and brings me so much closer to the Lord.

    I thank God for you, and I thank you for using your gifts so wonderfully. Thank you. May God bless you!


    Sent from my iPhone

  5. Pingback: Worship in the age of Coronavirus – Cardiphonia

  6. Pingback: Prayer and ‘After Prayer’, a Hypertext | Malcolm Guite

  7. Gregory Morris

    I took part in ringing glorious half muffled changes on 10 bells at Chester Cathedral on Tuesday for a funeral of the wife of one of Malcolm one of our ringers. This morning, I received a note of thanks from Malcolm (it is rare to get thanks from any quarter) expressing the comfort of hearing the bells ringing before the service. As there were 11 of us, I was able to go outside and soak up the lovely sound of a bob course of Grandsire caters. One loud change then the next change not only different in the change of the order of the bells but a vanishing vapour of a change like an audible wisp of mist before the real world crashes back in and then recedes. You do really feel in an in-between place in those situations. I came across your excellent poem in looking for Herbert’s poem on prayer. And this long winded note was intended to be a short Thank-you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.