"Ring out the Old, Ring in the New": The Symbolism of Bells in Nineteenth-Century French poetry.(Critical Essay)

By Boutin, Aimee | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

"Ring out the Old, Ring in the New": The Symbolism of Bells in Nineteenth-Century French poetry.(Critical Essay)


Boutin, Aimee, Nineteenth-Century French Studies


   The bells, which were once part of the holidays, have been dropped from the 
   calendar, like the human beings. They are like poor souls that wander 
   endlessly, but outside of history. 
 
      --Walter Benjamin 

In a now-famous gloss on the furious tintinnabulation in Baudelaire's fourth "Spleen," Walter Benjamin recognized a relation between bell imagery and the "modernist" crisis in memory. His reference to bells being "dropped from the calendar" is somewhat puzzling, if one not does know that the revolutionary calendar altered the liturgical year by modifying how and when parishes could use church bells. As a result, the image of church bells in nineteenth-century French poetry reflected the historical break between pre- and post-revolutionary culture, or between the pastoral nostalgia of Romanticism and the urban alienation of modernists like Baudelaire. After the French Romantics invested the bell with renewed nostalgic significance, Baudelaire reclaimed the Romantic bell as a sign of an epochal crisis in meaning and memory. Moreover, the transformations of bell imagery in nineteenth-century poetry, in effect, reveal how the modern lyric evolved from a descriptive form in which signs are referential to Symbolist poetry with its meaningless tintinnabulation, and from an assured resonant tone in the work of Hugo to a rasping voice like a knell in Baudelaire's poetry.

Social historian Alain Corbin and others have shown that the bell is a "lieu de memoire," (1) the site of nostalgia for the French countryside's "ringing towns." In Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th-Century French Countryside, Corbin describes how France's "ringing towns" were threatened during the French Revolution, first by the surrendering of bells to make coinage (summer 1791), then by the confiscation of bells to be recast as cannons (Law of July 23, 1793), and finally by a ban on the religious use of church bells (Laws of February 21, 1795 and April 11, 1796). This ban attempted to restrict the influence of the Church on daily life in order to republicanize the identities of the parishioners and their towns. (2) As Corbin argues, bells were markers of a community's spatiotemporal boundaries. Although the right to ring church bells was restored with the Concordat in 1802, parishes did not revert to the Ancien regime of bellringing (Corbin 34-35). The sound environment, which gave villagers a sense of place, had been forever altered. What Corbin refers to as a "revolution in the culture of the senses" had begun and is evident in the evolution of bell imagery from the eighteenth-century pastoral to Baudelaire's tableaux parisiens.

Bells appear in many pastoral poems as mere religious or rustic imagery; as such, they rarely hold our attention on their own. One of the best-known examples is Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," which was very popular in France. (3) We remember the elegy as a pastoral work, but its bell imagery, although prominent, remains a picturesque detail on a larger canvas. Bells and belfries are little more than a device that situates the reader within a stylized landscape, as befits the genre of "topographical poetry" in which the description of a landscape gives rise to a set of reflections. Bell imagery thus exemplifies the referential and descriptive quality of eighteenth-century verse. In fact, the meaning of bells as topographical markers goes back to the ancient history of the word "bell." In the Middle Ages in France, the word for bell was signum or sing (meaning "sign") hence the term tocsin. (4) Bells used to be the ultimate referential "sign" indicating the time and place to congregate.

In French Romantic discourse, however, bells increasingly take on figurative meanings and appear less often as referential signs. The new emotional and spiritual significance of bells is evident in Chateaubriand's Le Genie du Christianisme, whose publication on April 14, 1802 coincided with the adoption of the Concordat and the restoration of the right to ring church bells.

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