Church Bells Tolling

At every hour and more, from East and West
And North and South and every in-between,
From livid London’s every part, there floats
Upon the ill-fraught air the sobering sound
Of church bells tolling.

Their song assails the ears unceasingly
Because at every hour and more a soul
Is panted out into the ill-fraught air
The living fear to breathe, the baleful air
Of plague-struck London.

A choir accompanies the bells, a chant
Of moans and groans, of cries and rasping breaths
And gurgled last confessions, bed sheets torn
By tortured hands or by the blood-stained teeth
Of dying London.

A dance as well, oh yes, a deadly dance
Accompanies the tune that plagues the ears,
That plagues the mind at every hour and more,
As bodies writhe unto the maddening sound
Of church bells tolling.

I listen to the sound and watch the sight
Waiting to join the choir in turn and dance
To church bells tolling.

© 2019 Sarah van der Pas

Author’s Note:

This poem was inspired by something I read. James Shapiro, in his book “1606, William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear”, after mentioning the fact that plague seems to have been something of a taboo in the theatre of Shakespeare’s time because plays never involved people actually struck by plague, writes:

“Glancing allusions to plague’s devastation in Shakespeare’s work, when they do appear, are that much more striking. The most haunting is surely the dense one in Macbeth that alludes to the ringing of church bells for the dead and dying, so incessant that people no longer ask for whom the bells toll.”

The Macbeth passage referred to is 4.3.171-4.

Another, more remote source of inspiration for my poem was Poe’s wonderful poem “The Bells”.