Passing Bells is about the passing of the soldiers’ soul as he is killed in action, at war. The title itself ‘passing bells’ is referring to the moment when his soul leaves him, it ‘passes’ so to speak- the bell being their soul. The poem displays the stark contrasts between life and death, normality and a life of war. The life of a soldier is portrayed so clearly through his death. The death of a soldier is unknown for months, because there is no time for them to stop, to take the body back in the middle of war.
We are so unaware of their deaths, it is almost casual, like the passing of a bell- Passing Bells an apt title to capture this.
The use of ‘bells’ is also significant religious imagery, because England is a Christian country, the idea of having a funeral in a Church is widely understood and recognised- we remember that a soldier does not get this kind of ‘send off,’ because they can’t bring his body back with the survivors.
“That moment when the soldier’s soul slipped through his wounds”.
Duffy begins Passing Bells with the death of a soldier. She goes on to make his death a personal moment, as it goes on to say “seeped through the staunching fingers of his friend”.
This soldier was someone’s friend, someone’s son, someone’s brother, even. Yet their death goes seemingly unnoticed, insignificant almost, because no-one knows. However, this makes the moment more personal to the fellow comrade, his friend, who witnessed his death and could only watched as the light left his eyes and the “soldier’s soul slipped through his wounds”. This moment is so emotional and personal to the witness of it, and Duffy captures this image perfectly in the first few lines in Passing Bells. The soul is described to then “like a shadow” slide across a field “to vanish, vanish, into textless air…
” We are provided we sonic imagery in these lines, due to the overuse of sibilance: “shadow,” “slid,” “across,” “textless,” it’s like the hissing sound you hear from a deflating balloon- the soldier’s soul leaves his body, and we imagine it to sound similar using the sonic imagery through sibilance. Also, by emphasising the word “vanish” repeating it twice, Duffy emphasises the importance of the soldiers’ death- so many die every day, but we are blissfully unaware as we go about our everyday lives. Bells are highly significant in this poem.
They represent a manner of things, such as a soldiers’ soul, religious (funeral in a church) imagery, normalcy etc. The word ‘bell’ appears, therefore, several times throughout Passing Bells, not just as itself, but through the sound it makes: “jingling,” “tinkling,” “chiming,” “ringing,” “clanking”. I think this is because of it’s representation of the soul of the dead soldier most of all. However, I do not think this poem is just referring to one death, I think Duffy is telling you the stories of all the soldiers who have died fighting in wars.
Their souls have not all ‘moved on,” so to speak. Many are still here on Earth, ‘drifting’… We hear them through the bells in the poem. Duffy presents a sense of unity through listing the different places in the UK: “there would have been a bell in Perth, Llandudno, Bradford, Winchester”. In doing so, she displays the sense of patriotism felt by those who choose to fight wars for their country. In England especially, patriotism is an important part of ‘being British,’ and this is extremely so for the soldiers. They are doing this for their country.
However, this unity is also there to display the unity between the soldiers as the fight together, survive together, died together. For them, everything is done together. They shared possibly years of their lives with each other at war, so when one dies, they all feel the pain one would feel when losing a member of their own family, as this is how unified they became. When a soldier dies, the people they knew /back home’ may not find out for months. For months, they carry on their lives normally, spending most of their time hoping and praying for the best- that their son, father, brother or even friend is alive.
Duffy presents their personal experience of this by giving us several scenes of normality to contradict the death of the soldier and show us what is happening at the time of his death: “rung by a landlord in a sweating, singing pub,” “an ice-cream van jingling in the park,” “a songbird fluttering,” “a parish church chiming out the hour: the ringing end of school”. The reader is able to relate to this, because it is so normal for these things Duffy is describing to be happening. They are scenes we are used to, and personally understand, compared to the stark, harsh image of the soldiers’ death given to use at the beginning of the poem.
Another poem where we are confronted with the harsh reality of a soldiers’ death is in The Falling Soldier. The title itself is significant, similarly to Passing Bells, because of its wording. The poem is not called The FALLEN Soldier- it is called the FALLING Soldier, present tense. It’s as if Duffy has done this in order to say soldiers are dying, one by one, war is cyclical. It could also be saying that the soldiers are constantly ‘falling’ for the lies of the government, who tell them that war is glorious and they will be coming home ‘in time for Christmas’ etc. when really, they won’t.
They will most likely die and die alone. Similarly to Passing Bells, in The Falling Soldier the word ‘shadow’ is used as the soul of the soldier once again. “The shadow you shed as you fall is, brother, your soul. ” Also, Duffy makes this moment personal with the voice of the poem calling the soldier “brother” because by this point he would have been like a brother to many of the soldiers he had lived and fought with over the time period they have been at war. At any moment a soldier could die suddenly, and this is also shown throughout the bells significance in Passing Bells.
They are ringing, chiming, tinkling etc. throughout and I think this is important, because I feel that Duffy is trying to tell us that right now, a soldier could be dying but to us the moments we are in right now make it insignificant because we do not know, and will not know for some time, because it takes quite a long period of time for the news to get back to their country, their loved ones, and even then they can’t mourn properly- they don’t have a body to bury and pay last respects to.
Another important thought to notice is that even though they are supposed to be so unified, in fighting together etc. the reality is they die alone. Alone and in pain, with no-one to help them, which is also why “seeped through the staunching fingers of his friend,” is an important line because someone tried to help him and failed- we are reminded through Duffy’s words and use of such a personal and emotional scene, that this friend will remember this for the rest of his life if he survives long enough to go home.
The last three lines of this poem are of great significance, to me: “in city and in town and countryside – the crowded late night bus; a child’s bicycle; the old, familiar clanking cow-bells of the cattle. ” The last thing the soldier will have seen before his or her death will have been scenes of war, blood, fear, gunfire etc. they will never see scenes of normality again, we are reminded of the fact that they die in such horrible conditions. Never again will they see “city and in town and countryside” or “the crowded late night bus; a child’s bicycle”.
A powerful piece of imagery is in the final line of the poem: “the old, familiar clanking cow-bells of the cattle. ” As well as more bells imagery, I think it’s important to recognise the significance of Duffy’s use of the word “cattle”. Cattle are slayed for us every day but we obviously think nothing of it. In the same way, it’s as if she is trying to say the soldiers are killed in such an unforgiving way, their lives snuffed out as suddenly as a member of cattle, such as a cow, and it’s as if she is telling us they die so suddenly that as every moment goes by their deaths become more and more insignificant and, over time we forget.