Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky...*
I'm not sure I've ever heard a wild bell, but then I live in England, home of the mathematician bell-ringers, where every clang is placed so precisely that if you sit down and analyse every note you find an intricate and beautiful pattern, like a woven ribbon of sound.
It's just a shame you can't tell it's there by listening to it.
All the same, perhaps I can see what Tennyson mean by wild bells: bells certainly aren't tame, and are even slightly sinister. We call bells she in English, a rare distinction they share with ships, perhaps because a large bell can be similarly wayward and dangerous.
The menace of bells forms a thread running through our culture: if you beat someone up then you knock seven bells out of them. If you want to drive the devil out of them you do it with bell, book, and candle. Bells toll at our deaths and ring at our weddings - both occasions in some ways a defeat for the will.
Bells are designed to be our servants: they dutifully tell the time, or call us to prayer; they tell us that the pie is cooked, or that the postman's come; they inform us of how far through a ship's watch it is, or that someone wants to speak to us on the telephone (in Britain, if you give someone a bell, you're phoning them).
But who is really the master (or mistress) there? It's true that there are completely harmless bells on the bottoms of oboes and trumpets, for instance - and if something's as sound as a bell then it's in perfect condition.
The Liberty Bell, photo by Tony the Misfit
But still...listen carefully, do. Anything, but anything might be summoned by the clanging chimes of midnight...
...and we know those aren't going to be sleigh bells, now, don't we.
Spot the Frippet: bell. This word comes from the Old English belle.
*That's the first line of In Memoriam by Alfred Lord Tennyson.