Where bells no more affright the morn

Sugar River textile mill in Newport New Hampshire, 1880s, Russell Grilmafeson
Background Image: Sugar River textile mill in Newport New Hampshire, 1880s, Russell Grilmafeson

Recalling her earlier poem, “Sleep is supposed to be“, once again Emily is annoyed with having to wake up early and would rather be among the “Children” who “sleep / Thro’ centuries of noon”. But another way tho think of this poem is with the Isaac Watts hymn in mind which recalls Moses’ promised land and how earthly labor will one day be relieved in “Heaven”.

In Emily’s day it was not unusual for factory bells to begin ringing the workers to their shifts beginning at 4:30 in the morning. Previously, and for all of human history up till that point, people’s day were managed by the sun, but with rise of industry, clocks, bells, and managers ruled the day’s schedule. Fewer and fewer people were working the land or were close to nature because now they lived in the cities and so rather than a natural cycle ruling everyone’s lives, the unnatural world of “nimble Gentlemen” was in control.

And so Emily is on the one hand complaining about having to be woken up so early, she also addressing a deeper concern – one shared with someone like Henry David Thoreau – that our lives would be better spent if we did not answer to the master of industry but rather allowed our lives to be ruled by nature.

In the first line of the poem she equates the “bells” of the “Factories” (which is in the second to final line of the poem) with creatures who “affright” the morning, as if they give offense and terrify the woods and the countryside. Rather than the sun alighting the land, the bells frighten the small creatures and sleeping children, an image she comes back to in the final line of the poem.

She continues this railing against industry by describing the work that goes on in these factories as “scrabble”which not only means “a scramble; a confused struggle” (OED) but also is a slight against the paperwork going on in these places as useless scribbling quite inartistic compared to the beauty of poetry. And the image of a “confused struggle” is carried into the third line in which she describes the “very nimble Gentlemen” which not only refers to them being early risers and adept at grabbing the earliest of the morning’s worms, but also being “nimble” enough to navigate the press of “confused” workers who “struggle” out of bed and into the factories. Finally, Emily forces these businessmen to “keep their rooms” and so rather than the workers being practically imprisoned in the factories, she imprisoned the businessmen to remain at leisure in bed in their apartments.

The second stanza describes the sort of town she would rather live, one free of authoritarian bells where a person can sleep all day. She equates this perfect town to “Heaven” where, one assumes, we will no longer have to labor due to Adam and Eve’s sins, but she in not just referring to God the father, but also her own father with the word “Pater” as in pater familias who is the head of household. She is making a cheeky contrast between the father in heaven and her own father who won’t leave her alone.

The final stanza incorporates the Isaac Watts hymn, There Is A Land Of Pure Delight, whose final verse she quotes directly with the first two lines. Here Emily is dreaming – because she’s probably still half asleep as her father rings his bell at her door – of the promised land where labor is no longer the burden that all humankind must endure. What is interesting is that she refers to “Father’s bells” which, though she is describing her actual father’s bell, is embedded in this image of Moses who followed after the father in heaven. This is unusual because she is not just saying she wants to be free of her own father’s insistence she get up and go to work, but is implying that she wants to be free of God’s bells, too. But what I think she is referring to is that since God punished humanity to a mortal life of labor, she is comparing this punishment to her own father’s punishment and thus she wants to be free of all these mortal responsibilities. She also might be referring not just to factory bells, but church bells, too since she might not have been so keen to wake up early on Sundays either.

This is another fun poem and reveals her willful personality and gives us a glimpse of her relationship with her father, if at least in a playful way. But there is a slightly darker overtone here in that if we consider if she was someone who we would today describe as suffering from depression, not wanting to get out of bed is a common symptom of that illness and so we could also be getting a glimpse at her own mental state. I don’t want to diagnosis here – I’m not a medical doctor – and besides young people are not always the most eager to wake up early, but I do think it is worth keeping in mind.