“Ring Out, Wild Bells” – A Poem for the New Year

Ring Out, Wild Bells

December 31, 2011

Allan Stevo

In Slovakia, the word “Silvester” slides off of the tongues of people at this time of year. Tonight, December 31, is the nameday “Silvester.” Few in Slovakia would ever say the awkward and lengthy “New Year’s Eve” when they could just use the quick “Silvester” to say the same thing. “What are you doing on Silvester?” is the sentence many friends have asked each other over the past week or two.

As is the tradition of these pages, now should be a time for me to talk about what is typical for Slovaks to do on Silvester. That will have to wait for another time. There’s a poem that Lord Tennyson published in 1850 that I would like to share with you instead. A piece of the poem reads:

“Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.”

I’m unable to tie the poem into a Slovak tradition very concretely, so I won’t try to. But to preface the poem, I will point to the fact that the tolling of a bell on the Slovak lands can also carry the same meaning as it would in the tradition of the English speaking lands. Donne instructs

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee..”

Donne uses the tolling of the bell at a funeral as a symbol for death and he informs us that the death of one, regardless of who it is, affects everyone.

During the Velvet Revolution of 1989, one could witness entire squares packed full of Slovaks pulling their keys out of their pockets and jingling them. So gentle, so symbolic. It was the sound of miniature little bells tolling the death of the regime. Below Tennyson is less morose than Donne’s “Meditation 17” and its interpretation of death as a unifier but also an ending point. Like the realization of many in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Tennyson in this poem shares a perspective – When something dies, something new springs alive. When a door closes, another opportunity opens.

The reading of the poem below is not part of the Slovak “Sylvester” tradition, but part of the New Year’s Eve tradition in a far off European land. As part of a decades long tradition, this poem will be recited tonight in Stockholm, Sweden as part of a celebration of the coming new year.

As you read this, know that I too will have this poem with me, perhaps reading it at the same moment as you; I’ll be carrying it about in my breast pocket as I tend to my business outside of the house this week, pulling it out several times each day and thinking about the magnificent year that I hope we will all have ahead of us. Here is that poem – Lord Tennyson’s “Ring Out, Wild Bells.”

  • Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
  • The flying cloud, the frosty light;
  • The year is dying in the night;
  • Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
  • Ring out the old, ring in the new,
  • Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
  • The year is going, let him go;
  • Ring out the false, ring in the true.
  • Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
  • For those that here we see no more,
  • Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
  • Ring in redress to all mankind.
  • Ring out a slowly dying cause,
  • And ancient forms of party strife;
  • Ring in the nobler modes of life,
  • With sweeter manners, purer laws.
  • Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
  • The faithless coldness of the times;
  • Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
  • But ring the fuller minstrel in.
  • Ring out false pride in place and blood,
  • The civic slander and the spite;
  • Ring in the love of truth and right,
  • Ring in the common love of good.
  • Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
  • Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
  • Ring out the thousand wars of old,
  • Ring in the thousand years of peace.
  • Ring in the valiant man and free,
  • The larger heart the kindlier hand;
  • Ring out the darkness of the land,
  • Ring in the Christ that is to be.

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1850

This is a beautiful poem with a great deal of energy. It brings with it a sense of revolution and change. All years are memorable, but something tells me that 2012 will be a year even more memorable than the last, a year of change in the world. Do you have any predictions for 2012? Do you have any hopes you care to share? Will you be joining me in Slovakia for a visit before 2012 is out?

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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  • Ethel Ann Smith

    Jan 2nd, 2012

    Allan —
    Hope you had a wonderful “Silvester”. Your fine writing was quite interesting. Your writing and Tennyson’s poem” Ring Out – Wild Bells” has given me strong hope for a memorable 2012. Hope to visit you in Slovakia this year. Have a healthy and prosperous New Year.

  • Richard Myers

    Feb 11th, 2017

    Looking at this great poem in 2017 after a disastrous election. Thank you! Blessings to all peacemakers.

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