Copyright Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd
- A LOOSE CANON
Chapter ONE - THE PASSING BELL
I suspect it is now commonplace for those of us living in the West to reflect that while we live in an age of unparalleled material progress, the inner human condition itself seems not to have benefited greatly from such advances. To borrow a phrase from the noted Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, we often feel that we are ‘not better but only better off’. There remains in us some yearning for a deeper and more profound understanding of ourselves, quite unrelated to the modern notions of science. And yet, there are times when we do have some intimations of ‘the better’. Very often, they are momentary insights, arising inexplicably from what might otherwise be some wholly mundane experience.
Throughout recorded history, men and women have striven for this higher experience and have sought ways through which it might be more fully channeled into everyday life. Every tribe and nation, from most ancient to relatively recent, has established rituals and symbols to engender this experience. The Enlightenment of the 18th Century inflicted huge damage on these channels to understanding and today, much of the sacred symbolism and ritual is in decline. If I was to choose one surviving material symbol of this former understanding, it would be bells – still with us from remote antiquity.
For, as it seems to me, the sound of bells, particularly large ones, contains within it some indescribable feeling of ‘otherness’ which no modern acoustical laboratory will be able to convert from quality to mere quantity. The bell is one of the few material symbols which is common to the history of most of the world’s great religions. Here, in metal dug from the earth, resonates some powerful quality that is able to strike awe and reach to the furthermost point of our mind. In fact, the idea of writing something about bells came after I had read an article comparing the human mind to a cathedral. I left this discussion with a troubling thought. In this metaphorical cathedral, who rings the great bells in the bell tower to get the show on the road?
The Endangered Species
One thing quickly led to another and before you could say ‘Grandsire Bob’ or ‘Stedman Triple’ I was off looking at the history of bells. And what a marvellous history it is, dating back into remote antiquity and having itself a great deal of pertinent reference to that thorny issue of the relationship between science and religion. For bells, as we all know, have a very close association with a great many religions, yet the art of bell making is very much based on science and bell ringing is not without mathematical complexity. But, for all of its rich history and sacred tradition, the church bell is an endangered species in many parts of the world today. Its audiological niche is being taken over in a Darwinian struggle by the electronic gismo. Indeed, those church bells that still remain in most western cities must themselves be regarded as an obscure animal because their dominance of the aural landscape has long been put down by the vast engine noise of the modern city, the blaring sirens, the musak oozing from shops, the barbed-wire music from ghetto-blasters, and the attenuation of high-borne sound as it is absorbed in the bricks and mortar of skyscrapers.
Just as the church bell has lost her dominance of the city soundscape, so has the visual dominance of the belltower and church spire been usurped by the high-rise buildings and factory chimneys in many cities. From my study window at La Trobe University, Bendigo, I look out at a cityscape dominated by two features – the spire on the Sacred Heart Cathedral and the somewhat less inspiring communications towers. Still, I ought to be thankful. At least the cathedral spire is not wholly overshadowed by hideous, rectilinear, high-rise buildings –those gleaming and antiseptic symbols of progress. In fact, one measure of the spiritual poverty of modern Western culture might be found in the gradual extirpation of sacred architecture from city horizons as it becomes swamped with factory chimneys and skyscrapers.
But the visual loss is, for me at least, not as great as the auditory loss – the loss of church bells. Is it not the case that church bells fulfil the same functions in an auditory sense as do church spires in a visual one? Many modern churches no longer have real bells, only electronic facsimiles. By some savage irony, the heaviest bell in the world – the ‘Tsar Kolokol 111’, weighing in at 160 tonnes– is located in the Kremlin. It was cast in 1734, sounded once at birth and thereafter has remained silent – it was broken into two pieces as a result of a disastrous fire in 1737. Perhaps it anticipated Marx and Stalin and wisely decided on an early retirement. The famous Liberty Bell, first cast only a couple of decades after Tsar Kolokol, also gave up its voice after a relatively brief active life. It finally threw in the towel in 1835 after signalling its intentions much earlier (it first cracked in 1753 and was recast twice in that year). It, too, may have had some intimation of the coming Kingdom of Coca-Cola and Microsoft. There is a Russian legend that, on Judgement Day, the two pieces of Tsar Kolokol will miraculously fuse, and the bell will fly through the air and ring to call all souls to judgement.
Sacred Symbol and Sacred Sound
We are nowadays accustomed to thinking of the bell as having a characteristic shape and we might further suppose that such a shape gradually evolved through trial and error and scientific measurement, as the makers attempted to improve upon acoustics. This may have been the case in the Western tradition, but in the Hindu tradition, the ideal form of the bell came, perhaps two thousand years earlier, from sacred symbolism and not ‘profane’ science. The sacred form of the bell was derived from the abstract symbols of Brahmanism. In these, the universe is represented by a circle and the universe of pure form by a hemisphere. Out of this hemisphere the world-lotus, womb of the created universe, emerged. The Hindu bell was a representation of these three symbols. The circle comprises the loop surmounting the crown of the bell and the means by which it is hung. The hemisphere is the crown or top of the bell and the lotus is represented by the sides, flaring to a circular rim. Thus arose, from sacred science, the best possible form for a metal object to speak of its own essence. Nature itself very often conforms to this shape, as we see in the hundreds of plant species with bell-shaped flowers.
In the Buddhist tradition too, bells have been of immense religious importance. Wind bells proclaim the holy Word of Buddha with every passing breeze. Temple bells periodically ring out the greeting ‘Na-o-mi-to-fah’ (‘O Buddha, hail’). The ghanta, or handbell with its clear, high note, contains a mystical quality which attracts the attention of deities. In proper hands it could be powerful; in improper ones, dangerous. In the giant temple bells, prayers are often put on the surface of the bell so as to go out with its sound. One such bell, the Great Temple Bell of Peking, supposedly cast in the 13th Century and weighing over 50 tonnes, is still extant but no longer sounded. In Korea, a huge Buddhist bell of even greater antiquity still exists. At about 72 tonnes, it is the third largest ringable bell in the world. Part of the inscription (translated) on it reads: ‘True religion lies beyond the realm of visible things; its source is nowhere seen. As a sound is heard through the air without any clue to its whereabouts, so is religion’. Here is a remarkable parallel to the much quoted verse from St. John’s Gospel (3:8): ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof; but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit’.
Many of these giant bells in the East were hung low to the ground so that the spiritual emanations from them could enter the earth as well as the upper realm. Moreover, by being so hung, the tolling of the bell could be felt as well as heard. The striking of such bells is, by an account that I have read, a most extraordinary experience. After being struck on the outer surface by a huge ramrod, the bell shudders and gives off an enormous booming sound. This slowly decreases to a hum and then to a vibration so low in pitch as to be felt more than heard. The sound decreases in such a way that one cannot really discern a moment of ‘stopping’ – there is simply the sensation of knowing that whatever came out of the bell has gone and the eye turns to the devas, or flying angels on the surface of the bell. The deep boom of these enormous bells simulates the sacred sound ‘Om’.
Bells and Christianity
Many historical accounts suggest that, in the Christian tradition, bells originally became associated with churches and the sacred as signalling devices. There is every reason to believe, however, that bells performed a much more significant role in the early Church. Bells have been found in the catacombs where early Christians were buried and we might suppose that they were provided either for the departed to use as protection on their journey to the afterlife, or for the living visitors to the catacombs to sound as a protection from those souls which had not yet departed on their journey. While it might be wrong to attribute too much to bells in early Christianity, there is no question that they were of immense importance in some communities – far beyond that of mere signalling devices. Many ancient bells from Celtic Christianity still survive and partake of the character of holy relics. They were carried by holy men in their evangelizing. The famous bell of St. Patrick, the clog-an-edachta, is now in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. It had an official and hereditary custodian – Mulholland – in whose possession it remained for centuries.
There is much further evidence of the enormous importance of bells in the early Christian Church. As far back as the 13th Century, it is recorded that one of the great bells of the church was rung at the moment when the Sacred Host was raised on high. This was to give warning to people at work in the fields so that they might momentarily kneel in an act of adoration. Even earlier, there developed a custom of refraining from ringing the bells from Maundy Thursday until Holy Saturday as a token of mourning. The practice of ringing the funeral bell, on the other hand, symbolizes the relinquishing of the individual will at death.
Dissecting the Sounds
What is it that makes the sound of a large bell so profoundly solemn, dignified and altogether awe-inspiring? According to the Grove Dictionary of Music, it has to do with the peculiar complexity of sound frequencies ‘containing a considerable number of partials that may or may not be in concordant relationship’. Moreover, after each stroke of the striking mechanism, the sound does not die away suddenly as with many other musical instruments, but continues on with what bellfounders call its ‘hum note’. The various frequencies or partials are named according to where they fit into a schema involving pitch, amplitude and decay. The upper partials are in more or less dissonant relationship to each other but, as the Grove dictionary says, ‘they give its [the bell’s] sound the rich vibrant attack that is an essential characteristic of a bell’s timbre and make it uniquely useful for arresting attention’. While all of this is undoubtedly true, such descriptions cannot explain why the sound inspires us and even seems to resonate with some inner quality within us.
Dissonance gives us the notion of ‘wild’ bells, so beautifully captured by Tennyson in the line ‘Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky’ (In Memoriam A.H.H.). There is, in this untamed sound, some feeling akin to that which a nature-lover might experience at the foot of some vast cataract in a remote mountain wilderness. Proof of such experience comes from attempts, in times gone by, to ‘tame’ the sound of great bells by concordant tuning. The Dutch, in recent times (1950s), took steps to permit only those city bells with partials reasonably in tune to be rung. Every bell in the city sounded alike and could be distinguished only by direction and pitch. The Russians learned the hard way too. At one time they attempted some careful tuning of great zvon bells in the Russian Orthodox Church in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem. It was found that the magnificent timbre of the old Russian bells was sacrificed.
Smaller bells, on the other hand, are not so much dignified, solemn, and awe-inspiring as they are happy or faerie. Whereas your large bell is something of a philosopher or town crier, your small bell is a nature-lover. The tinkling of small bells somehow brings us closer to the natural world around us and I propose that this is so for two reasons. First, the small bell is a tolerable imitation of many natural sounds - bird calls, a gurgling stream singing over its bars and the sound of certain insects. Second is the frequent actuation of small bells and chimes by use of the wind – Aeolian music. Nature itself actuates the bell. Not surprisingly, small bells and chimes seem to be much admired by certain devotees of ‘New Age’ ways. Whenever I now hear the tinkling of such bells, I automatically expect to smell burning incense sticks and resinous balms and see certain types of hanging symbols – crescent moons and dolphins.
The First Recyclers
But let us return to church bells, the heavy artillery, so to speak. The military connection here is most apt. As it happens, bronze church bells make very good bronze cannon and the usual story in times gone by was to melt down all the bells when war seemed likely or was actually in progress and to convert them back to bells at the end (if you were the victor, of course). We nowadays suppose that recycling of metals is a recent and ‘enlightened’ activity. Mind you, the vanquished rarely saw the benefits of such recycling. Nor did the destruction of bells cease when bronze cannon were replaced by more modern armaments. There was a huge destruction of bells in the First World War and great confiscation of bells in the Second.
The casting of bells is an ancient and complex art and we can trace its origins back a very long way indeed. According to the Grove Dictionary, bronze crotals (small ‘closed’ bells containing within them ‘pellets’ which strike the inside surface of the bell when the latter is moved about) were made in ancient Egypt as far back as 2000 BC. Bells are mentioned in Exodus (xxxiii, 33) as being required for the high priest’s ‘ephod’ (garment). Bellfounding in China began at about 1100BC and by 500 BC the bronze alloy of four parts copper to one part tin (still used commonly today) was in use. In the Christian tradition, the first recorded bell makers are the smiths Tasag, Cuana and Mackecht, who accompanied St. Patrick to Ireland in the 5th Century. The development of cast church bells is thought to have started with the Benedictines about 530 in Monte Cassino, Italy. If this is the case, then it is most fitting, for the subsequent histories of many church bells and of Monte Cassino itself, have many parallels. Just as church bells have often undergone several lives (bells to cannons and coins, back to bells), so has Monte Cassino itself. It was destroyed by the Lombards circa 585, by the Saracens in 884, by the Normans in 1046, by an earthquake in 1349 and by the Americans in 1944. Each time it has been rebuilt and its emblem or motto is ‘succisa virescit’ (cut down, it grows green and strong again). History like that engenders a certain degree of optimism in me. I like to think that, when I pass all of those proud brass plates of eminent business houses and ‘men of high degree’ in the city, they will one day end up in church bells. Bronze or brass is never so arrogant and untruthful as when used in inscriptions (Sam Johnson supposed that ‘in lapidary inscriptions, no man is under oath’) and never so noble as when it speaks as a bell. Think, for a moment, of that common saying ‘as bold as brass’.
There is ample evidence to suggest that, in ancient times, the casting of bells was accompanied by a great deal of ritual and that the process was of immense spiritual significance. In the Christian tradition, the choir and clergy might assemble to perform a special ritual during the pouring of molten metal. In Japan, a priest might drop large word-characters of a blessing into the molten metal. These were constructed of thin copper so that they would coalesce with the rest of the bell metal – a fused prayer. In China during the Ming period, the making of a huge temple bell might be placed under the direction of a famous magician. Just as important, the siting of the newly cast bell would depend very much on cosmological divinations. Sometimes, improper location of a bell would result in the instrument being taken down and buried until such time as a more propitious site was found. The Great Temple Bell of Peking was buried for decades before being re-hung at its present site.
On Profane Baptisms
The business of formally dedicating new bells in the Catholic tradition has occasioned a good deal of controversy since the 16th Century. In their new zeal, the Protestant reformers saw in this ritual what they believed to be a ‘baptism’. As such, they believed it to be not only superstitious but a profanation of the sacrament. The Catholics, on the other hand, argued that their blessing and anointing of bells did not include the phrase ‘I baptise thee’ or similar words which may be taken to mean this. These old wounds are evidently still tender, for I notice that a modern Catholic Encyclopaedia is at great pains to dispel the notion of true baptism of bells. The reformers themselves were eventually overcome by the sheer power of tradition and the innate human urge to recognize the spiritual significance of the bell as a symbol. Initially, all inscriptions or virtutes on bells were forbidden - the only symbol tolerated was a Latin cross and any other iconography was idolatry. Later, the reformers relented. I have read, with some amusement, of an inscription on an Anglican bell reading: ‘Lord by thy might, keep us from pope and hypocrite’. Another Anglican inscription expressed similar misgivings regarding the Methodist movement: ‘Prosperity to the Church of England and no encouragement to enthusiasm’. By the end of the 17th Century, Protestants all over the place were putting virtutes back on their bells. Bells, it seems, tell us what inscriptions they require in order to function in their duty.
The Personality of Bells
Quite aside from their profound religious significance, there is something about large bells which compels us to think of them, in a physical sense, as much more than ‘instruments’ or mere lumps of metal; they are individuals with character and resist the usual generic description of musical instruments. Proof of this is the fact that so many of them are individually named. And they are named, moreover, with tremendous sensitivity to their particular character and duty. Big bells of deep voice have names like ‘Great Paul’ or ‘Big Ben’, although there are some hefty tenors with ‘lighter’ names such as Emmanuel in the Anglican Cathedral, Liverpool. This bell weighs in at about four tonnes. Sometimes, bells were named for a particular purpose as, for instance, Gabriel in the case of an Angelus bell.
The other nice thing about large bells is that they are somewhat unpredictable at birth and no two bells of the same general proportions will necessarily sound the same. So much so that the bell founder usually has to take little bits of metal off here and there to achieve something like the required sound. Bellfounding in this respect is not all that much different to human birth. Each individual human differs in nature and a measure of conformity is only achieved by the imposition of custom and by education – we are tuned to the Zeitgeist. I daresay the day will come (if it has not already) when some factory in Japan or America will be able to mass produce large bells which are entirely predictable in sound, varying not one iota from the desired frequency – it will all be done by computers. Such bells and bell-making ought to be regarded in the same way as most of us view human clones and cloning. As in birth, the death of a bell is also unpredictable and Tsar Kolokol III and the Liberty Bell bear witness to this. Again, they mirror the human condition.
Ringing the Changes
No article on campanology would be complete without reference to the art of bell ringing. I have mentioned that bell-ringing as we know it today developed from simple calls to the faithful indicating times for prayer, feast days or other matters where the community were called to assemble or to pray. At first, there was the toll or simple sounding of a single bell. Then, gradually, there developed the ringing of two or more bells of different note. A bell may be sounded in a number of different ways. Very large bells, such as many church bells in Russia and bells in Asia, are stationary bells struck on the outside or inside by some hammer-like device. Crotals have already been mentioned and these are simply shaken or moved quickly to produce the sound. For true ‘church bell ringing’ as we know it today, the bell is mounted on an axle and is made to turn by pulling a rope attached to a wheel on this axle. A ‘clapper’ hung within the bell then strikes the inside of the bell as the latter turns from the vertical hanging position. Since it takes such a bell about two seconds to swing full circle, it is difficult to play recognisable music on a group of church bells. In a sense, the real art and beauty of modern bell ringing is a mathematical beauty, not a musical one. Mind you the ‘musical’ sound is not unpleasant - it has a certain wild beauty of its own.
This is not the place to go into a detailed description of bell playing. Suffice to say, there has developed from the simple playing of ‘rounds’ (each bell sounded in succession), a more complex art, called ‘change ringing’ where the sequence of individual bells changes. Amongst simple changes on an 8-bell peal, some are regarded as being particularly pleasing to the ear and are given names such as ‘Queens’, ‘Tittums’, ‘Kings’ or ‘Whittington’s’. This practice of ringing changes is, for the most part, an English peculiarity, although it is now practiced widely in many other countries. From what I have been able to glean from the massive popular literature on bell ringing, the real appeal is the challenge of conforming to a complex but pleasing mathematical pattern combined with a tinge of competitiveness and a certain ambience of surroundings - aged churches of noble architecture, winding staircases, and all the ancient smells of worship.
The art of bell ringing is still very much alive and, indeed, seems to be gaining in popularity. There are numerous books and shorter treatises on the subject and the Internet has many bell ringing sites. Reading some of the guides to bells of various places however, one gets the distinct impression that the bell ringing has become pretty much divorced from the realm of the sacred. Thus we typically find a description of the number and quality of the bells at church X, the availability of parking, the size of the ringing chamber, and the location of the nearest pub. There is nothing much about the reasons for ringing - the type of divine service announced, etc. Does the vicar or priest stand at the door, inquiring of the visiting bell-ringer, as did Captain Bildad on the Pequod when he questioned Queequeg: ‘art thou at present in communion with any Christian church’?
Homage to Bells
Over the centuries, poets, composers and writers have paid their homage to church bells. Many are preoccupied with the bell as a symbol of death but others simply express the great joy of bells. In this latter category, few have surpassed Dorothy L. Sayers, the doyen of the detective novel. In The Nine Tailors, featuring the redoubtable Lord Peter Wimsey, she gives a memorable description of the bells in the tower of the fictional church of Fenchurch St. Paul:
The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. … every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells – little Gaude, silver Saboath, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the middle of them.
This is not just writing; it is distilled or coded experience which reforms directly in the reader’s brain as sensual reality.
Among modern poets, surely no one was more deeply moved by the sound of church bells than John Betjeman. He titled his autobiographical poem ‘Summoned by Bells’ and his work is suffused with references to bells. Nearly everyone who has read Betjeman commits to memory that marvellous evocation of a Surrey town at twilight:
Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.
(A Subaltern’s Love-song)
Of other and earlier poets who refer to bells one of the most quoted is John Donne, who, from his sick bed (he was stricken by what a modern commentator suggests was relapsing fever), was haunted by the incessant tolling of funeral bells from the nearby church of St. Gregory. He gave us those memorable lines beginning ‘No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe’ and going on: ‘any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde: And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: It tolls for thee’. This, I must add, is often quoted nowadays to point out the dangers of ‘inclusive’ language. Substitution of ‘man’ by ‘person’ does to the passage what relapsing fever very nearly did to Donne. I cannot help but mention here a curious little aside related to his affliction. In addition to the usual prescription of ‘Cordials to keep the venim and Malignitie of the disease from the Heart’, his ‘Phisicians’ also prescribed the application of dead pigeons to his feet ‘to draw the vapors from the Head’. This gives new meaning to the term ‘on the wings of a dove’! Donne recovered from this affliction, and, had his physicians known of the National Health and Medical Research Council, I am sure they could have obtained a grant to study pigeon therapy. The satisfactory experiment on Donne would have been reported in the British Medical Journal and enthusiastically reported in the world media.
Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New
As part of the special jubilee celebrations to herald the new millennium, there were many special celebrations within the Christian Churches. One such event, so I am told, was the ringing of church bells at midnight on New Year’s Eve throughout the Christian world. It thus proclaimed to the world, as we may suppose it did in the Christian world of 1000 AD, that human life is more than Professor E.O. Wilson’s advanced biochemistry. The celebrations, we might further suppose, went beyond the frontiers of particular religious traditions and, rather, confirmed certain metaphysical realities common to all. And so, at the stroke of midnight in each city and village, we might have heard (from some celestial vantage point) a mighty blanket of sound, ringing out from every inhabited corner of the globe. From the East, the great boom of giant temple bells breathing out the divine Om so that the very earth itself answered in sympathetic vibration. Behind them, a great cloud of sound incense from the tinkling of countless small bells. From Russia, the wild beauty of crashing svon bells, hurling their benedictions to the sky. From West, the swinging Hosannas of steeple bells, their high-borne waves of sound breaking on the rocky shores of the mind, surging and receding in a great tide of praise. Those sounds, however clear or faint upon the wind, might then have caused us to reflect, as the shipwrecked Aristippus did when he saw those human traces on the Rhodian Shore - `let us be of good hope, for indeed, I see the traces of men’.