“The Bells of Stanford”

I’ve been thinking about Jonathan Sterne’s audiovisual litany and auricular beliefs lately, and it’s something I hope to post more about soon. But whether or not sound is more directly connected to our emotions, it can’t be denied that the sound of bells elicits emotions from listeners.

This poem by a Stanford alum (class of 1906) captures the emotional nostalgia he hears upon hearing the campus bells. (Also see Yale lyrics on their bells.)

“The Bells of Stanford” by Judge Ernest Klette, ‘06

The bells of Stanford ringing,
With low and sweet refrain;
The church choir softly singing,
Now call me back again.

And they call me back once more,
Where Stanford mem’ries cling;
To the church and classroom door,
Where oft’ I’ve heard them ring.

Through the corridors of time,
They echo, o’er and o’er,
With that tuneful cadent rhyme,
I’ve heard so oft’ before.

As they mingle with the past,
In accents, soft and low,
Swiftly in my mind they cast,
The scenes of long ago.

And while there I pause again,
And gaze across the years,
‘Tis with mingled joy and pain,
My eyes are filled with tears.*

Wow, he’s so moved he’s tearing up at the end! Now there’s an ideal bell listener. Klette graduated in 1906, so his poem references the set of four bells installed in the Memorial Church tower, a prominent building on campus, in 1901.** These bells marked the time with the Westminster chime. He likely witnessed the earthquake on 18 April 1906, which brought down many beloved buildings on Stanford’s campus, including the Memorial Church tower and its bells. The bells were not reinstalled until 1915, and it was a makeshift tower at that. In 1940 it was announced that a full-size carillon was to be installed in the new Hoover tower. So the nostalgic reveries initiated by the sounds of bells in this poem not only recall the intense emotional connection of the original chime to the poet, but also hint at the anticipation of the newer and bigger bell instrument that will grace the campus.

What I find remarkable about this poem is that he perceives the simple, regular melodies of the Westminster Chime as musical (“tuneful cadent rhyme”)—not as a mere sound signal. His nostalgia for the past has idealized the sounds from it by emphasizing the musical aspects of them. In addition, his poem provides a model for the students’ and alumni’s relationship to the new carillon about to be installed. An alumnus’ overt display of affection for his alma mater subtly instructs students on how they too can live the full college life and remember it fondly when it’s over.

* Judge Ernest Klette, “The Bells of Stanford,” Stanford Illustrated Review 42, no. 8 (1941): 28-29.
**This paragraph mostly taken from my dissertation “Remembering and Performing the Ideal Campus: The Sound Cultures of Interwar American Universities (Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin, 2010).

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