A reading of a haunting short poem
‘When the bells justle in the tower’ is a short poem comprising a single quatrain, written by the poet A. E. Housman (1859-1936) although not published until after his death, when it appeared in Additional Poems in 1939. W. H. Auden admired the poem. It was described by Housman editor and critic Christopher Ricks as the best thing Housman ever wrote.
When the bells justle in the tower
The hollow night amid,
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
Of all I ever did.
In fact, the poem was never given a title, so it might be referred to as Additional Poems IX or ‘When the bells justle in the tower’, after its first line. And that brings us to this short poem’s haunting quality: that word ‘justle’. The Oxford English Dictionary includes both ‘jostle’ and ‘justle’ as interchangeable verbs meaning the same thing – the noise of the rough movement from side to side of the bells in the tower. Both ‘jostle’ and ‘justle’, fittingly, appear side by side, as if jostling (or justling) for primacy. But ‘jostle’ has won the fight, at least if we take Microsoft Word as judge: ‘justle’ is underlined with a red squiggly line, suggesting it isn’t a ‘real’ word, while ‘jostle’ suffers no such fate.
And it is partly the delicate effects of this four-line quatrain that make it so memorable: ‘justle’, ‘taste’, ‘tongue’, ‘sour’, those ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds and that flat ‘u’ of ‘justle’ and ‘tongue’. Sounds, rhymes and half-rhymes, jostling (sorry, justling) against each other in discordant cacophony. And yet perhaps the real reason why the poem is so haunting is that we don’t know why the sound of the bells ringing in the tower should generate such a response from the speaker. Why does the tintinnabulation of bells recall to his mind (and his tongue) all of the things (bad things, if they leave a sour taste) he ever did?
Christopher Ricks suggested that there is a pun on ‘tongue’ in the poem: bells have tongues as well as speakers of poems. And bells ringing in Housman poems rarely betoken something good: they are less likely to be wedding bells celebrating a happy marriage than the sound of the bell gathering its strength to strike the hour of a man’s execution (see Housman’s poem ‘Eight O’Clock’) or the noisy church bells calling to church a lad who has recently lost his lover (‘Bredon Hill’). Perhaps the speaker of this poem is another condemned man, like the criminal who is doomed to hang in ‘Eight O’Clock’, although the bells are not ringing for his execution (they are ringing ‘the hollow night amid’, after all): this bell doesn’t toll for thee. But there is something atmospheric about the lines, like the sound effects beloved of filmmakers, where the night is still save for the ghostly whistle of the wind through the trees and the sonorous far-off chiming of a church bell.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that ‘When the bells justle in the tower’ was composed, apparently, in a dream. In his Collected Poems and Selected Prose of A. E. Housman, Ricks informs us that the poem was sent as a Christmas card in 1930 and was ‘said to have been composed by A. E. Housman in a dream.’ Housman often did this, apparently: he composed better verses in his sleep than most people do while awake. The author of ‘When the bells justle in the tower’ in Housman’s dream was, we are told, G. K. Chesterton.
Continue to explore Housman’s poetry with our pick of his best poems.