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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

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“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” shows Ransom’s pattern of addressing ultimate metaphysical issues and using the conventional quatrain form to impose order that distances speaker and reader from the emotions involved. The occasion for the bells is the funeral of John Whiteside’s daughter. This poem is her elegy, and the speaker represents the community, describing everyone’s astonishment at her unexpected death.

The poem refuses to dwell on the present and the girl’s death, focusing instead on the past and her active life. The first line establishes the contrast between the child’s speed then and her stillness now. Except for the neighbors’ reaction in the first stanza, the first four stanzas are written in past tense, and each implies a contrast with the present. The neighbors are “astonished” at the contrast between the “lightness” they remember and her uncharacteristic “brown study,” an appearance of deep contemplation.

While discussing the death, the speaker appears to digress into a whimsical description of her using a rod to rouse lazy geese from “their noon apple-dreams.” Another contrast is set up, however. Ironically, the girl’s “tireless heart” has stopped, and no external force (rod) can make her rise. Her “brown study” is very different from the pleasant “noon apple-dreams” of her geese, and her position (lying “primly propped”) is the antithesis of their “scuttling goose fashion.” The speaker’s statement that the geese “cried in goose, Alas” gains significance when closer examination suggests that the overblown language can have two meanings: The geese may be extravagantly lamenting their own condition, but “Alas” is followed by a comma, usually a signal that the meaning extends to the next line—in this case, “For the tireless heart within the little/ Lady. . . . ” Thus, the passage can be read as implying that the geese also grieve.

The final stanza, in present tense, describes the neighbors’ reactions just before the funeral. The bells sound, calling them to the service, and they believe they are prepared for the funeral, but all such thoughts are “sternly stopped” when they enter the house (possibly a house of worship). They are “vexed” to see the child’s body “lying so primly propped.” Balancing the word “astonished” in the first stanza, the word “vexed” downplays the neighbors’ emotional reaction, carrying the dual connotations of being “annoyed” by the fact of the girl’s death and being “puzzled” about its explanation.

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