Richard Wakefield’s ‘The Bell Rope’
Richard Wakefield is a teacher at Tacoma Community College. He is also a well-known poet and literary critic for the Seattle times. Quite a number of his poems have also been published in various newspapers and magazines ( Raum & Elizabeth, 2010). ‘The Bell Rope’, Richard Wakefield’s masterpiece, a twenty-four lines but with only one stanza on Christianity, is written in the first person narration of a past tense. The poet himself confesses that this poem is one of the most personal poems he has written as a Christian and further as a catholic and thus the poem depicts his religious life. Wakefield in most cases writes in closed form as opposed to free verse poems meaning that the poems are bound and therefore follow a set of rules in poetic elements like form, rhyme scheme, and the meter.
This poem is clearly set in a church which can be seen by the mention of Sunday school and more so the Catholic Church since Wakefield is a Catholic.
In the first line, the reader is introduced to a boy who learns a psalm in Sunday school and this is what makes him to qualify to sound the steeple bell in church. The sound of the bell is meant to call people to the Sabbath mass without discriminating the unsaved and saved to Christianity (Colen & Dan, 2010 p 7).
In the first few lines, the reader gets to notice the lack of confidence the boy has since he did not practice and has not mastered all lines of the psalm well. Mastering all the lines of the psalm is supposed to qualify the boy to sound the bell and thus boost his confidence.
The boy the reader is introduced to goes through a lot of changes as the first line of the poem this fact, something that can be asserted by the mention of the boy in question and narrator, as well as sounding the steeple bell on Sunday school. This is familiar to Catholics since the bell calling the faithful to church rings during every mass.
The reader can clearly visualize the movement of the rope up and down in successive movements as boy the tries to ring the bell .In the first half, the boy lacks confidence owing to the fact that he has not mastered all the lines of the psalm and he is not quite sure of himself in the call of the saved and those who are not saved implying that the call by the bell is universal. All those who hear the bell are given the opportunity to come to the mass. The bell can therefore be said to symbolize the call to Christianity in that everybody has an equal chance to be saved.
The mood in the poem is apprehensive in the first part, which is the first few lines, as the boy is anxious with the bell and although he cannot ring the bell at the first attempts, he finally manages to ring the bell and becomes more confident. When he grows old, he nostalgically remembers that time when he gained enough confidence which grew from this achievement and when the crowd cheers him on, this turns the mood from apprehensive to confident. The bell rings so loud that it makes the boy now full grown have faith in him even as he overcomes childhood phobia and lack of confidence and finally becomes a man (Snowball, Lesley & Kenneth, 2013). It is this faith that makes him gain confidence enough to become a man.
The poet has employed the constant use of the sound device `i’ which can also be referred to as assonance and as a stylistic device, it creates an emphasis on the speaker’s transformation from a boy in the first line to being a man in the last part of the poem. Although he tries to sound the Sunday school bell with no success at first, in the end, he is answered by the loud ringing of the bell and he says that it rings so loudly as if repaying him for the previously unanswered calls and even ends up receiving applause from the crowd which positively enhances his manhood. This sound also proves the first person form because the persona refers to himself quite a number of times thus showing his personal experience, it thus makes it believable that after many times of trial, he gains enough confidence and faith that enables him to become a man (Untermeyer & Louis, 2008). At first he refers to himself as a boy but with more trials, we encounter a more refined and better person referring to himself as ‘i’ and we can immediately sense the difference, growth and the transformation he undergoes after ringing the bell and the effect of the applause he receives from the crowd further boosting his confidence that even enables him to call himself a man after forty years and when he recalls the experience, it makes him want to go back to that period and do it all over again.
The sound of the Sunday school bell shows the literary device of onomatopoeia, we the readers can get the auditory imagery of the sound of the bell when it rings. This further helps to build and develop the theme of religion especially in light of the catholic church where there is the common bell that is rang every Sunday during the start of mass and helps church goers to differentiate between the different times of mass so they can attend the mass service.
The use of alliteration can be best illustrated by the use of the sound ‘s’ which has been constantly repeated in Sunday school, sound and steeple, so –saved, steeple and stair and in lines and lost. This literary device helps to create musicality and enhance the memorability of the poem. There is also the use of alliteration in the fifth line where the persona, for lack of patience lost all the lines. The sound ‘l’ therefore has been repeated and this is especially important in the poem as it shows the lack of confidence in the boy at first because he was supposed to master all the lines in the psalm and because he lacks the faith in himself for not having mastered all the lines. It is this persistent spirit in him that enables him gains enough confidence to ring the bell.
There is also repetition, another literary device, of the sound ‘s’ which also helps create consonance since it is a consonant sound and at the same time it is repeated in the same line in quick succession. This too creates musicality and creates the flow of the poem. Apart from the stylistic devices the sound ‘s ‘possesses, it is a very important sound throughout the poem from the Sunday school which gives us the setting of the poem as in church, the ‘s’ in psalm, which serves as the qualifier to ring the bell and the steeple bell being rang presents the main idea in the poem as given in the title .The title suggests that the bell is suspended by a rope and that is what the boy pulls to ring the bell. This creates a mental picture thus creating visual imagery since we can visualize the bell hanging somewhere on one of the walls of the church (Colen & Dan, 2010). This visual imagery enhances the theme of Christianity and gives the poem its meaning. In the last line of the poem, the persona nostalgically wishes that if he could find that rope even after forty years, he would grasp it. There is also the sound ‘s’ in the grasping of the rope as well thus developing the poem’s meaning and content.
Wakefield has also employed the use of assonance which is the repetition of vowel sounds in the first line for example in the words ‘learned’ and’ psalm’ where the sound ‘a’ has been repeated (Colen & Dan, 2010 p. 7). In the second line the words steeple and bell too the sound ‘e’ has been repeated to create the rhythm and flow of the poem.
The poem has a regular alternating rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefghghijijklkl and this is achieved by the exact rhyming words and in this case we are focusing on end rhyme since internal rhyme is not dominant in the poem. This is achieved greatly through the use of enjambment that helps achieve the end rhyme and therefore the closed form poem. Some of the words that rhyme are identical and others because the last syllables rhyme for example the words took and shook rhyme because they are identical in the sense that their last syllable is similar which is ‘..ook’..’Ride’ and ‘Beautified’ on the other hand rhyme because they are pronounced in the very same way in the last syllable too even though they do not end in the sound ‘d’ but the sound ‘e’ is silent in the word ride hence making the rhyme scheme possible. ’Obsecure’ and ‘sure’ rhyme perfectly although they do not have the same number of syllables because obsecure has an extra syllable. The rhyme scheme helps in the memorability and creates musicality in reading the poem.
The syntax of the poem is particularly important because it shows the rhythmic motion in the poem showing how the boy goes up and down in trying to ring the bell in repeated successive motions and further shows the efforts he goes through and helps the reader to visualize the movements and create the image of the boy going up and down until he finally manages to ring the bell (Raum & Elizabeth, 2011 p.28).
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The use of the word ‘up’ literally shows the boy going up to ring the bell. The bell is placed on a higher ground than what the boy can access given his height so he has to go up physically to ring it and symbolically, it shows the efforts the boy puts in place to achieve the mission of ringing the bell and he does not give up in this endeavor showing the positivity he has and he finally manages to ring the bell. In this context, it is the boy who has mastered the psalm who rings the bell and since the persona has not mastered it well, he has to go up a number of times before he can finally manage to ring the bell.
The poet also employs the use of enjambment in the sense that some lines in the poem are completed in the next line without a pause between them which can serve as a means to achieve the rhyme scheme and achieve Wakefield’s closed form style of writing. This too makes the poem simple and enables it possess a thin consistency in its readability. Given the poetic license, the poet is allowed to bypass the prescribed grammatical rules which is why the poet does not necessarily complete sentences with the required full stop or pause sentences by use of commas but completes them in the next lines.
The mention of biblical words such as Sabbath, Heaven, angels, God, Sunday school, Pentecost and psalm cannot be overlooked because they serve to prove and enhance the meaning of the poem which has to do with religion, Christianity and faith. They also give the poem the religious tone that it is attached to.
There is a direct translation in the last part of the poem where the persona talks of nights when sleep won’t come which in a more grammatical and acceptable language means when he is sleepless or has sleepless nights. From this, we can conclude that that experience he goes through as a boy is life changing to the extent that on remembering that time he cannot be able to sleep owing to that call, the call that he was ironically supposed to make to the saved and those who are not so saved in the fourth line ( Colen & Dan, 2010 p. 7). He was assigned the responsibility to call people to mass, or rather to Christianity but he also ends up being the one who is called and when he receives the answer, he is transformed entirely and becomes a different but better person in the end.