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What do you associate with the word bells? Jolly sounds or sounds of sadness? In the poem “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” by John Crowe Ransom, bells ring for a young girl who has died. She lived a vibrant life full of imagination, playing among the orchards and the fields. The American Southern poet explores the themes of life and death in this brief elegiac poem told from the perspective of a neighbor who used to see a young girl playing outside his window.
Fig 1: The bells in the poem are a symbol of sounds associated with both life and death.
|“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” Poem Overview|
|Poet:||John Crowe Ransom|
|Type of poem:||Elegy|
|Poetry Collection:||Chills and Fever (1924)|
|Literary Devices:||Contrast, symbolism, word choice/connotation, simile, personification, alliteration, and irony.|
|Theme:||Life and death|
|Meaning:||Life is fleeting and death is difficult to comprehend|
“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” is a poem written by the American poet, academic, and literary critic John Crowe Ransom. The poem is from Ransom’s 1924 poetry collection, Chills and Fever.
John Crowe Ransom grew up in Tennessee. He was greatly influenced by the culture and landscape of the American South. It can be assumed that “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” takes place in a small, rural town in America.
Here is the full poem "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter":
The speaker, one of John Whiteside’s neighbors, recalls a young girl who was fast and light on her feet. The neighbors look at her dead body, shocked by the stillness that contrasts the quick movement and life that characterized her in their memory.
The neighbors used to watch the playful, spirited girl outside their large windows looking out onto the orchards and nature. The girl feigned battle with her shadow and played by the pond. Her existence is characterized as both spirited and lonesome.
Fig: 2 The mention of the pond and shadow creates a reflective mood, emphasizing the girl’s vivid inner life and the appearance of loneliness.
The speaker personifies a flock of lethargic geese who roam and litter the grass.
Bells ring indicating the girl’s death, and the neighbors are summoned inside of a house. They are confused by how her body lies prim, proper, and still. Her image in death contrasts her former liveliness.
The poem “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” conveys the meaning that life is fleeting and death is difficult to comprehend. The poet explores these ideas through the form and literary devices used in the poem.
“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” is a 20-line elegy written in 5 quatrains.
An elegy is a poem of remembrance for the dead.
A quatrain is a stanza of poetry made up of four lines.
Elegiac poetry typically celebrates the departed person’s life and addresses the speaker’s grief. While traditional English elegies usually end with consolation for grief, Ransom ends his poem emphasizing the neighbors’ puzzlement.
The poet writes to stress that death is not something easy to process. He writes from the first-person perspective of a neighbor who often saw the young girl outside his window but did not truly know her. By writing an elegy from the perspective of a distanced narrator with an unestablished relationship with the girl, the poet suggests that witnessing death is a striking experience, regardless of whose death it is.
Although the poem is written in neat quatrains, it does not have an established meter. The lack of regular meter reflects the girl’s spontaneity in her life and movements and the unpredictable nature of death.
The poet uses end rhymes in alternating lines to lend cohesion to the poem and to mimic the lightheartedness of the girl to a certain extent. John Crowe Ransom balances the jolliness of rhymes with the frequent use of half rhymes, which create a repetition of sound and continuity of pattern without making the poem sound too much like a nursery rhyme. Although the poem remembers the girl’s youthfulness, it is told with an air of distance and loneliness congruent with death.
The full rhyme scheme of “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” is ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH IJIJ.
“For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!” (13-16)
“Rise” and “skies” are perfect rhymes, as they share the same stressed vowel sound and have similar ending sounds. “Little” and “scuttle” are half rhymes because they share the same ending sounds but do not have the same stressed vowel.
The poem features several literary devices, including contrast, symbolism, word choice/connotation, simile, personification, alliteration, and irony.
The poem is built on the contrast between the motion of life and the stillness of death. The poet emphasizes that while she was alive, the girl was quick on her feet and spontaneously ran around and played in nature. The neighbors are most shocked to see her dead body because she lies so still. The poet uses this contrast to suggest a striking line between life and death that is hard for the human mind to comprehend.
The poet carries this contrast into depicting the birds in the field. In their default state, they are hazily wandering around the grass, but the girl startles them into flight and action. The girl is someone who incites energy into life, and now that her energy is gone, life is much more static.
Contrast is the comparison of two people, places, things, or ideas used to emphasize difference.
The bells in the poem symbolize a sound associated with both life and death. The sound of bells can be interpreted in both a positive and negative light. The poem’s title, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” initially seems to imply something positive such as bluebells, school bells, or Christmas bells. Bells, in association with youth, evoke a lighthearted, celebratory sound.
However, when conflated with the idea of death, the sound of bells can evoke the heavy ring of church bells rung in remembrance of someone’s death. In the poem, the bells are likely rung in a small town to alert the townspeople to gather. In this case, they are called to gather around the girl’s dead body.
In the poem, the poet interestingly refers to the dead girl’s body as “her brown study” (3). This description relates to the somber, serious disposition she takes on in death. By evading the term dead body, the poet suggests that it is as if the girl is just deeply focused or sleeping and will soon come to life again.
Although the poem is about a playful young girl, the poet uses particular descriptions and word choices that characterize her as a powerful warrior. He writes that “her wars were bruited” and “she took arms against her shadow” (5,7). He also describes her as “the little / Lady with rod” that made the geese rise (13-14). The words “bruited,” “took arms against,” and “rod” suggest the girl’s power and fight. Ransom suggests that there is war and fiery personality in this small girl and implies that all that life in her was lost.
John Crowe Ransom uses a simile to compare the “lazy geese” to “a snow cloud,” contrasting the ideas of warmth and cold. While the young girl is pictured playing outside in the warmth of summer days, there is a coldness and distance to the poem, which is appropriate because it speaks of the girl’s death. The idea of snow covering the grass lends a certain stillness to the scene and can be understood as the foreshadowing of the girl’s stillness in death.
Nonetheless, the poet maintains a certain lightheartedness in the poem through the personification of the geese as “lazy,” “sleepy,” “proud,” and lethargic people who cry “Alas” when the young girl comes to scare them off. The use of personification gives the nature the girl interacts with a face and personality. As she was often seen outside playing alone, her imagination likely let her find companionship among nature.
Fig 3: In Tennessee, where the poet is from, there are white geese called snow geese.
“The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,” (9-12)
A simile is a figurative comparison that uses the word like or as.
Personification is when human characteristics are given to nonhuman things.
The final stanza features evident alliteration in the rhyming lines, “sternly stopped” and “primly propped.” The playfulness and peculiarity of the words Ransom chooses lend irony to the situation. Rather than the people in the house being distraught and distressed with grief, they are simply “vexed” or confused by how the girl’s dead body looks “propped” up on display with decorum.
The fact that the people are “sternly stopped” suggests they are children being instructed in how to behave and react in such a situation. The poet’s detachment from strong feelings of grief creates a sense of irony that carries throughout the poem. There is a strange casualness in describing loss.
“But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.” (17-20)
Alliteration is the repetition of initial sounds at the beginning of nearby words.
Irony is when expectations are subverted from reality, creating a sarcastic or humorous effect.
“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” clearly focuses on the theme of life and death. The poem portrays life through the young girl’s quick movements, imaginary battles, and interactions with nature. She is depicted as fully alive by interacting with her surroundings with fervor, fun, and awareness. The girl’s life is full of experience even within the simplicity of her surroundings, yet it is also very brief.
John Crowe Ransom portrays death as something perplexingly sudden and foreign. One minute the girl is outside running and playing as normal, and the next, she is lying “primly propped” and still (20). She is nearly unrecognizable. The poet suggests that death is a strange thing because it can be so incomprehensible, and there is no smooth or proper way to process it.
An analysis of “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” is that the poet creates a distanced, puzzled view of death in order to suggest that the experience of death is strange, abrupt, and difficult to comprehend.
Bells symbolize sounds related to both life and death in “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.”
The theme of “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” is life and death.
”Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” was written in the early 1920s and was published in 1924. It was published in John Crowe Ransom’s poetry collection, Fever and Chills.
A summary of “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” is that the speaker recollects how a young girl in his neighborhood used to play in nature outside his window. She used to be playful and full of energy, but not lies still in death. The contrast between her movement in life and stillness and death puzzles the townspeople.
Who is the author of the poem “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”?
John Crowe Ransom
What type of poem is “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”?
What year was the poem published?
What is the main theme of the poem?
Life and Death
True or False: While traditional English elegies typically end with consolation for grief, Ransom decides to end his poem emphasizing the neighbors’ puzzlement.
What do bells symbolize in the poem?
Sounds associated with both life and death.
The phrases “sternly stopped” and “primly propped” in the last stanza are an example of which literary device?
What is personified in the poem?
What is contrasted in the poem?
The movement of life and the stillness of death
How does the poet refer to the girl’s dead body?
“Her brown study”
What is the speaker’s relationship to the girl who died?
The speaker is a neighbor who used to see the girl playing outside from his window.
What is the rhyme scheme of the poem?
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