The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

“Ring out your bells” is part of a miscellaneous collection of thirty-two sonnets and songs. This song is divided into four stanzas, each composed of six lines of verse and four lines of choral refrain. The speaker’s opening request, addressed to his neighborly audience, suggests the ancient custom of tolling church bells to announce a local death. It also establishes the common funereal experience and the solemn tone for this poetic monologue about the death of love. The speaker distances himself from his own abstract emotion, the idea of love, by personifying it (giving love human attributes and treating it as if it were a real person). In this way, the concept of love, separated from himself, becomes a fictive character whose death is cause for his initial request. When love is viewed as a separate individual, the speaker can complain bitterly about his frustration and misery, the causes for love’s infection, sickness and death, and his haughty mistress’s abusive and capricious cruelty. Thus, there are three characters in this dramatic song: the speaker, his absent mistress, and love.

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The idea of death, a universal event, introduces the situation and allows the speaker to appeal to a reader’s sympathetic responses. When he urges his listeners to action—to ring the church bells, openly express grief, wail sorrowful songs, and read thirty requiem masses—the speaker clothes another commonplace occurrence, a romantic dispute and separation, with the mental anguish normally associated with death and funerals. Other experiences familiar to some readers are the paradoxical conflicts and frustrations in some love relationships. In the first three stanzas, the speaker elaborates on the misery, scorn, and rejection love endures when honor and loyalty are considered to be worthless virtues. He portrays love dying on a bed built from his mistress’s foolish and overweening pride; wrapped in a burial shroud of disgrace; valued, even in her last testament, with false worth and censure; and finally entombed in the lady’s cold, stony heart. Ironically, the inscription on love’s tombstone will reveal that the lady’s glancing eyes once shot arrows of love at the speaker, creating instant love between them. This magical, first-sight love, an old Elizabethan belief, is similar to what William Shakespeare developed with his star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet.

The first three choral refrains, identical in their four lines, echo the lover’s plaints about his proud mistress’s scornful, frenzied behavior. Also, the fourth line repetitively recalls a prayer drawn from church rituals. The fourth stanza abruptly and radically shifts perspective. The speaker announces his error with a phrase similar to a biblical comment, “Love is not dead, but sleepeth” (Matthew 9:24). Actually, love and his mistress are just deliberating on a reward worthy enough for him. With his reversed attitude, the speaker praises his mistress. His reawakened love helps him turn his scathing accusations into self-scorn and mockery for his earlier comments. Despite the speaker’s jubilation, the song’s final line paradoxically repeats the religious prayer that concludes the first three refrains, “Good lord, deliver us.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

Sir Philip Sidney was a poetic experimenter, synthesizer, and innovator in poetic theory and forms. He sought new ways to use and revitalize old literary traditions and conventions such as those popularized in Petrarchan and Platonic love poetry. Petrarchan love sonnets featured aristocratic and courtly lovers who complimented and manipulated an idealized mistress with extravagantly flattering metaphors, images that implied parallels between two ostensibly different things. For instance, some facial features of an iconic mistress might be suggestively likened to stars, roses, pearls, or cherries. Platonic love originally described an aristocratic code of chivalrous devotion to a married lady or to one of superior social rank. Through time, the chaste nature of this old bond was sometimes abused. In courtships in which lovers were not given favors or awards, the discontented petitioner agonized, complained, and pleaded repeatedly to the untouchable lady, who refused him. In “Ring out your bells,” the speaker’s catalog of grievances typifies him as a Platonic lover whose courtship has been soundly rebuffed. In rebellion, his thoughts turn dark when his virtues or lofty aims are not rewarded in some way.

Simple patterns of imagery support the synthesis of Petrarchan and Platonic traditions. The speaker implies an analogy between love’s tomb and the mistress’s stony heart and suggestively equates love’s eyes with the love darts in the epitaph. Even the mistress’s unpredictable behavior resembles the manners of the aristocratic coquettes depicted in Petrarchan sonnets. However, one extended metaphor dominates most of the content. Throughout the song, the implied analogies between the banality of a broken romance and the heartbreak of death are determined and reinforced by the funereal and religious wrappings associated with the death metaphor.

Sidney’s interest in prosody, the metrical structure of verse, relates to his stylistic strategies to match rhythms and words. Just such a metrical innovation introduces the fourth stanza. Sidney dramatically stops the rhythmical pattern of iambs when his phrasing and meter dictate a pause underscoring his speaker’s changed perspective. The startling statement, “Alas, I lie,” in iambic meter (one unaccented syllable followed by one accented syllable), is followed by a trochee (one accented syllable followed by one unaccented syllable), “rage hath this error bred.” The accentual stress on “rage” also emphasizes and intensifies the trochaic pattern in the ensuing line: “Love is not dead.” Repetition of this same trochee, along with “but sleepeth” in the next line, allows Sidney to match sound to the sense of the verse. Although he does not mention this song, William A. Ringler, in the introduction to The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney (1962), writes that several of Sidney’s sonnets “bring a new rhythm into Elizabethan versethe first regularly sustained accentual trochaics in English” until the 1590’s.

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