Yes, it was written by that Alfred Tennyson, who wrote the lyrics as a poem mourning the death of his sister’s young fiance. When sung, it’s readily apparent that the song is one of grieving. It’s one of the few non-sacramental hymns written in a minor key, although it resolves to a major key on the last note of the third verse. We’ll get there.
This hymn is also unique in that it uses an ABBA rhyme scheme rather than the traditional ABAB we’re used to. Listen to the first verse and see:
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light.
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
The unfamiliar (for the hymns, anyway) rhyme pattern adds some discord to already dark lyrics. We sing about a wild, wintry landscape filled with death. We’re mourning, and despite the word “happy” appearing in the second verse, there’s precious little happiness to be felt here.
So why on earth is this hymn in our hymnbooks? What is it doing in a book filled with praise, joy, and exultation? And what on earth is it doing right next to the Christmas hymns? Setting aside the fact that the Savior makes an appearance in the third verse, this hymn’s inclusion makes more sense if you reconsider what is meant by the old and new years in the lyrics.
On the face of it, the lyrics are about leaving the past and its attendant miseries behind us. And yet, while we do that, we also sing about ringing in the “Christ that is to be.” (You can think of this as a Christmas song if you want by thinking of this as foretelling His birth.) We welcome Him into our lives and cast out everything that was weighing us down before. We transition from sin and darkness into light and truth. We ring out the old and ring in the new.
We are the year that dies in this song, and we are the new year that is born. To accept Christ into your life is to let the natural man die and see a spiritual being born in its place. It isn’t done halfway. Death and rebirth is an apt comparison, and it’s what we sing about in this hymn. When we turn to a new calendar, we often make resolutions for the coming year. We strive to improve ourselves; we want to be better. As we sing, we are reminded of our desire (and our covenant, taken at baptism) to draw nearer to our Savior and follow His example. We ring out the false and ring in the true. We ring out the darkness of the land (and within ourselves) and ring in the Christ that is to be.
It’s no accident, I think, that the song resolves to a major key on the last note; that’s when we mention the Savior. The tune is discordant throughout until it is given new meaning on that last note. So too, our lives are discordant until we give them new meaning by allowing the Lord in to resolve us to a major key. He heals us, makes us kinder and more empathetic, and gives us, as Tennyson writes, “the larger heart, the kindlier hand.” What better time to resolve to let our Savior into our lives than the new year?