The Spirit of Place and Other Essays by Alice Christiana Thompson Meynell


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Page 1

Of all unfamiliar bells, those which seem to hold the memory most surely
after but one hearing are bells of an unseen cathedral of France when one
has arrived by night; they are no more to be forgotten than the bells in
"Parsifal." They mingle with the sound of feet in unknown streets, they
are the voices of an unknown tower; they are loud in their own language.
The spirit of place, which is to be seen in the shapes of the fields and
the manner of the crops, to be felt in a prevalent wind, breathed in the
breath of the earth, overheard in a far street-cry or in the tinkle of
some black-smith, calls out and peals in the cathedral bells. It speaks
its local tongue remotely, steadfastly, largely, clamorously, loudly, and
greatly by these voices; you hear the sound in its dignity, and you know
how familiar, how childlike, how life-long it is in the ears of the
people. The bells are strange, and you know how homely they must be.
Their utterances are, as it were, the classics of a dialect.

Spirit of place! It is for this we travel, to surprise its subtlety; and
where it is a strong and dominant angel, that place, seen once, abides
entire in the memory with all its own accidents, its habits, its breath,
its name. It is recalled all a lifetime, having been perceived a week,
and is not scattered but abides, one living body of remembrance. The
untravelled spirit of place--not to be pursued, for it never flies, but
always to be discovered, never absent, without variation--lurks in the by-
ways and rules over the towers, indestructible, an indescribable unity.
It awaits us always in its ancient and eager freshness. It is sweet and
nimble within its immemorial boundaries, but it never crosses them. Long
white roads outside have mere suggestions of it and prophecies; they give
promise not of its coming, for it abides, but of a new and singular and
unforeseen goal for our present pilgrimage, and of an intimacy to be
made. Was ever journey too hard or too long that had to pay such a
visit? And if by good fortune it is a child who is the pilgrim, the
spirit of place gives him a peculiar welcome, for antiquity and the
conceiver of antiquity (who is only a child) know one another; nor is
there a more delicate perceiver of locality than a child. He is well
used to words and voices that he does not understand, and this is a
condition of his simplicity; and when those unknown words are bells, loud
in the night, they are to him as homely and as old as lullabies.

If, especially in England, we make rough and reluctant bells go in gay
measures, when we whip them to run down the scale to ring in a
wedding--bells that would step to quite another and a less agile march
with a better grace--there are belfries that hold far sweeter companies.
If there is no music within Italian churches, there is a most curious
local immemorial music in many a campanile on the heights. Their way is
for the ringers to play a tune on the festivals, and the tunes are not
hymn tunes or popular melodies, but proper bell-tunes, made for bells.
Doubtless they were made in times better versed than ours in the
sub-divisions of the arts, and better able to understand the strength
that lies ready in the mere little submission to the means of a little
art, and to the limits--nay, the very embarrassments--of those means. If
it were but possible to give here a real bell-tune--which cannot be, for
those melodies are rather long--the reader would understand how some
village musician of the past used his narrow means as a composer for the
bells, with what freshness, completeness, significance, fancy, and what
effect of liberty.

These hamlet-bells are the sweetest, as to their own voices, in the
world. Then I speak of their antiquity I use the word relatively. The
belfries are no older than the sixteenth or seventeenth century, the time
when Italy seems to have been generally rebuilt. But, needless to say,
this is antiquity for music, especially in Italy. At that time they must
have had foundries for bells of tender voices, and pure, warm, light, and
golden throats, precisely tuned. The hounds of Theseus had not a more
just scale, tuned in a peal, than a North Italian belfry holds in leash.
But it does not send them out in a mere scale, it touches them in the
order of the game of a charming melody. Of all cheerful sounds made by
man this is by far the most light-hearted. You do not hear it from the
great churches. Giotto's coloured tower in Florence, that carries the
bells for Santa Maria del Fiore and Brunelleschi's silent dome, does not
ring more than four contralto notes, tuned with sweetness, depth, and
dignity, and swinging one musical phrase which softly fills the country.

The village belfry it is that grows so fantastic and has such nimble
bells. Obviously it stands alone with its own village, and can therefore
hear its own tune from beginning to end. There are no other bells in
earshot. Other such dovecote-doors are suddenly set open to the cloud,
on a _festa_ morning, to let fly those soft-voiced flocks, but the
nearest is behind one of many mountains, and our local tune is
uninterrupted. Doubtless this is why the little, secluded, sequestered
art of composing melodies for bells--charming division of an art, having
its own ends and means, and keeping its own wings for unfolding by
law--dwells in these solitary places. No tunes in a town would get this
hearing, or would be made clear to the end of their frolic amid such a
wide and lofty silence.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Mon 20th May 2019, 18:55