Sunday Pages: "Ring Out, Wild Bells"

A New Year's poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Dear Reader,

When the ball dropped, I started bawling.

While it’s true that “Auld Lang Syne” always makes me a bit weepy, this was not the typical New Year’s Eve mistiness. I cried for a good twenty minutes. I’m not even sure why—if it was sadness or relief or gratitude, some combination of the three, or something else entirely. But it took me (and my family) by surprise.

Those tears were necessary. My emotions were purged when that ball dropped. I slept well that night, and spent the first day of the new, and better, year getting some much-needed rest. I hope you did, too.

For the first “Sunday Pages” of 2021, I wanted to share a poem about New Year’s. But the only New Year’s poem I know is the Robert Burns one that forms the lyrics for “Auld Lang Syne.” (If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t even know Robert Burns wrote those words until Ken Jennings told me during the New Year’s Eve broadcast on ABC, on a commercial for a new Jeopardy!-type gameshow he’s hosting that looks very similar to the one in the film Magnolia.) And now that I’ve gone and read the poem, I see that it contains the lines “We twa hae run about the braes / And pou’d the gowans fine,” which, I mean, what more is there to say?

So I Googled “New Years Poem” and was offered these lovely lines by the great Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which I had never read before. This poem was published in 1850, when Abe Lincoln was still a prairie lawyer, but might have been written specifically about New Year’s Day 2021—save for one word in the ultimate line that sticks in the teeth:

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 my 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.

See what I mean? Totally modern, except for that fourth-to-last word. Nothing against Jesus of Nazareth, but my Gen X dander goes up when overt religious sentiment is needlessly snuck into otherwise secular poems. Ah, but is it religious, really? The word Christ, as the poet well knew, comes from the Greek χριστός, which means “anointed one.” It’s a title, not a name. Merriam-Webster lists the secondary meaning of anoint as “to choose by or as if by divine election.” By that definition, who but Joe Biden is the “anointed one” for 2021? I’m not saying he’s the Savior, but he is absolutely going to save us. If Tennyson were some Brooklyn hipster, and the poem composed two weeks ago, it would end like this:

Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the President to be.

So: Ring out the false, ring in the true, my friends! We’re almost at the finish line.

Seventeen more days.


Photo credit: Maria Azzurra Mugnai. Times Square after the ball drop, 2007.