“The Belfry . . . Standing Up Grey, Gaunt” | R.S. Thomas and Other Poets on Church Bells

bellcote in wales

Bellcote of a church in Llanfihangel-y-Pennant, Wales

It’s not uncommon for me to be reading three, four, five, or more books at a time, which is a formula for losing track of the trajectories of the writers’ thoughts; which also is an equation for adding idea to idea until they equal a blog.

For example: bells.

Poet Jack Gilbert writes:

God does not live among the church bells,
but is briefly resident there.

Given that the poem’s title is “Music Is in the Piano Only When It Is Played,” I think Gilbert is saying that God is briefly resident among church bells only when they are ringing.

So God was briefly resident outside the window one August Sunday in 1963. Nancy and I were staying at the White Hart Hotel, which is adjacent to Lincoln Cathedral, when, suddenly, the cathedral’s bells began to peal, jolting us out of bed, calling us to worship later in the morning.

Poet John Betjeman writes:

Your peal of ten ring over then this town,
Ring on my men nor ever ring them down.

Betjeman’s rhymes and rhythm are reminiscent of pealing bells – bells that he hopes the bell ringers will never stop ringing, so that God will never become nonresident.

Poet R. S. Thomas writes:

I have seen it standing up grey,
Gaunt, as though no sunlight
Could ever thaw out the music
Of its great bell; terrible
In its own way, for religion
Is like that. There are times
When a black frost is upon
One’s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

The typical Welsh church does not have a tower with a ring of several bells, rather it has a bell-cote, a small structure with open sides on the church roof. This allows the single bell to be clearly seen – seen, in Thomas’s poem, suspended there, as if frozen.

Thomas, a priest, did not hide his experiences of times when the bells of belief are not pealing in the human heart. Then there’s no point in crying out to the bell ringers: Ring on my men nor ever ring them down.

We must wait in stillness, in an attitude of anticipating the unexpected, for God to pull the bell rope.

Poems quoted in this blog:

“God does not live among the church bells” – “Music Is in the Piano Only When It Is Played,” Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven, 58.

“Your peal of ten ring over then this town,” – “On Hearing the Full Peal of Ten Bells from Christ Church, Swindon, Wilts.,” John Betjeman, Church Poems, 38.

“I have seen it standing up grey” – “The Belfry,” R. S. Thomas, Pietà, 28.

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7 thoughts on ““The Belfry . . . Standing Up Grey, Gaunt” | R.S. Thomas and Other Poets on Church Bells

  1. I couldn’t find Gilbert’s poem on line (it seems to be a collection) but my first reaction to the quote was that God does not require a physical church: He is there with His worshippers, regardless of the setting. And the version of Betjeman’s poem I found on line had “or ever ring them down”. I leave you, John, to decide whether that is a typo since I don’t even know who “my” is.

    • I have three different collections of Betjeman’s poems; each has “nor.” McEllhenney 1, Online nil.

      Jack Gilbert’s poems are not yet well enough known to appear on websites. Here are the lines in which the lines I quoted are embedded:

      . . . We are the stillness when
      a mighty Mediterranean noon subtracts even the voices
      of insects by the broken farmhouse. We are evident
      when the orchestra plays, and yet are not part
      of the strings or brass. Like the song that exists
      only in the singing, and is not the singer.
      God does not live among the church bells,
      but is briefly resident there. We are occasional
      like that. A lifetime of easy happiness mixed
      with pain and loss, trying always to name and hold
      on to the enterprise under way in our chest. . . .

  2. I love Church bells. Unfortunately, you do not hear them so much nowadays. Once every little Church had at least one bell that called the faithful to worship. As always, I love your writing…

    • The chapel “bells” of the retirement community where I live are electronic chimes. But down the hill there’s a Catholic church with a true bell that rings about 15 minutes before the beginning of the masses. I can hear it when I’m out walking . . . and pause . . .

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