English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

05 May 2023

Randall Couch's 'Peal' and other literary bells

This weekend, bells in towers up and down the country will be ringing to mark the Coronation of King Charles III. Since the Coronation was announced there has been a concerted effort, ‘the ‘Ring for the King’ campaign, aimed at recruiting new ringers to learn the fascinating and absorbing hobby of change ringing and join the celebrations.

The art of change-ringing – the ringing of tower bells in mathematical patterns known as methods – originated in 17th-century England and, although practised in other countries today, remains a primarily English phenomenon. As such, it is perhaps strange that it is so little reflected in English literature. While poets such as Tennyson in ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’ or A.E. Housman in ‘On Bredon Hill’ no doubt had the sound of change-ringing in mind, their work does not evoke or describe its specific patterns, although George Butterworth’s musical setting of ‘On Bredon Hill’ does capture it to some extent. Bells are a regular theme in the poetry of John Betjeman, who comes closer to reflecting change-ringing specifically and in one poem, ‘Bristol’, even speaks of ‘the mathematic pattern of a plain course on the bells’. In his Collected Works the pattern is printed below the poem.

John Betjeman’s poem ‘Bristol’ with  the pattern of a bell ringing method printed at the end
Bells Betjeman X.989-6365. Caption: ‘Bristol’, from John Betjeman’s Collected Poems. 3rd ed. (London, 1970) X.989/6365.

The most famous literary bells in fiction are probably those in Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective novel, The Nine Tailors . Crime writers seem to have an affinity with ringing – it features in two of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin books and an episode of the long running TV series Midsomer Murders – but Sayers’ novel captures it most (if not entirely) accurately, and ingeniously uses the pattern of a ringing method as the basis of a cipher that is a key to the mystery.

A recent British Library acquisition uses ringing methods in an equally ingenious and intriguing – though very different – way. The American author, poet and critic Randall Couch, like Sayers, was fascinated by this ‘tradition of algorithmic composition’ and the result was the unusual and beautiful book Peal (RF.2021.a.5), published in an edition of 300 copies by the Tipperary-based Coracle Press in 2017.

Couch uses the construction of various ringing methods to play with English syntax. The books starts with a ‘Cento’, a poem composed from other writers’ lines. The lines Couch uses, chosen from a wide range of literary, philosophical, musicological and scientific sources, almost all relate in some way to bells, numbers, pattern, syntax or melody. He then turns each line into a ringing method by moving the words as the bells move in the chosen method, creating juxtapositions that range from the poetical to the nonsensical. In keeping with the conventions of writing out ringing methods, the path of the last word in the original line, corresponding with the heaviest working bell in the method, is printed in blue, and the first word, corresponding to the lightest bell (the treble, which may follow a different pattern to the other bells) is printed in red.

Here’s a simple example, using the line ‘Every text is a cento’ from French linguist François Rastier’s Meaning and Textuality. The method is Plain Hunt on five bells, the same as the ‘plain course’ quoted in Betjeman’s ‘Bristol’, although Couch better follows convention by writing the rows out in horizontal rows rather than vertical columns.

Sentence ‘Every text is a cento’ written in the pattern of Plain Hunt on Five Bells
Plain Hunt on Five Bells from Randall Couch’s Peal, (RF.2021.a.5). Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

For a work that plays with ideas of syntax and meaning, an obvious line for Couch’s cento is Noam Chomsky’s famous example of a grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical sentence, ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’. Couch turns this into a plain course of Grandsire Doubles ‘Grandsire’ is the name of the method, and ‘Doubles’ means it is being rung on five bells. (You can read more about how methods are named here.)

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’ written in the pattern of Grandsire Doubles
Grandsire Doubles from Randall Couch’s Peal. Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

While Plain Hunt and Grandsire are among the easiest methods and the first that ringers tend to learn, Couch also uses more complex ones which he says were ‘chosen with an eye to the associations created by juxtaposing their names with the corresponding opening lines.’ Here is a line from a work by the earliest writers on change-ringing, John Duckworth and Fabian Stedman, set to a course of London Delight Bob Triples.

‘And every bell is a Wit’s Common-wealth’ written in the pattern of London Delight Bob Triples
London Delight from Randall Couch’s Peal. Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

Couch also includes the method that bears Stedman’s name with a quotation from Gertrude Stein, ‘Money is what words are.’ Among the less familiar methods he uses are Bobby Dazzler Little Alliance Major (to Alan Turing’s words ‘Machines take me by surprise with great frequency’), Titanic Triples (John Cage’s ‘Every something is an echo of nothing’) and some with deliberately amusing names such as Ursa Minor (poet John Cleveland’s ‘I like not tears in tune’).

Couch’s cento and its variations may not have the instantly catchy appeal of Tennyson’s, Housman’s or Betjeman’s poems, but they are a unique and fascinating reflection on the structures of both change-ringing methods and the English language itself, with a lasting appeal for anyone with an interest in either.