Belgian Bells to Stanford

The folks at Stanford rhapsodized about their bells even before they had arrived! This poem was published in the Stanford Illustrated Review, vol. 42, no. 8 in 1941. The carillon was installed later that year in the spring, and it was obtained from the Belgian exhibition at the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40.

“The Bells from Belgium” by William Leonard Schwartz

Sing, bells from Belgium, sing
Those Stanford hymns we know;
Ring, carillonneur, ring
Your air from long ago!

Chime, bells from Belgium, chime,
In hours of work and play:
Time’s hope for man is time –
Time’s fear, some man’s delay.

Strike, bells from Belgium, strike
For freedom, justice, truth,
That East and West alike
Heed Belgium’s song to youth.

The speaker treats the carillon as a musical instrument, calling out for it to metaphorically “sing.” In the first stanza, the author, both an alumnus and professor of French at Stanford, commands the Belgian bells and the carillonneur to perform Stanford hymns and an “air from long ago.” The request for Stanford hymns is predictable. A musical instrument as public and far-reaching as the carillon would seem obliged to play songs of the campus to which it belongs. The call for an additional air rounds out a repertoire tinged with sentimentality.

The speaker implores the bells to play at times of “work and play,” so that they can regulate the time for their activities. The last two lines of the second stanza reference the time-keeping function of the bells. The benevolence of time to wish more of itself for people echoes through the bells’ signals. The bells, the steward of time, supply a friendly reminder of the hour to assist people in their daily schedules. The regular ringing of the bells may be construed as dogmatic or beneficial; here the poet confirms a positive assessment of public timekeeping.

The last stanza underlines the political situation in early 1941. Although the United States had not yet entered World War II, the war was already raging in both Europe and East Asia. A message for “freedom, justice, truth” was a timely one. I have found no evidence that Schwartz knew that the largest bell in the Belgian carillon was inscribed “uno pro pace sono” (“I Ring for Peace”), but given the final stanza it seems likely. “Belgium’s song to youth” – the bells – transmits a message of peace that the speaker hopes will be heard by “East and West alike.”*

*The last three paragraphs taken from Kimberly Schafer, “Remembering and Performing the Ideal Campus: The Sound Cultures of Interwar American Universities” PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2010: 207-08.

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