What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight! -
From the molten - golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle - dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! - how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells -
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!
That's just one part of one of my favorite Poe poems, The Bells, which as I'm sure is obvious are the next subject of interest!
The first ecclesiastical use of bells was to announce the hour of church services. It is plain that in the days before watches and clocks some such signal must have been a necessity, more especially in religious communities which assembled many times a day to sing the Divine praises....as it became needful to call to church the inhabitants of a town or hamlet, bell turrets were built, and bells increased in size, and as early as the eighth century we hear of two or more bells in the same church. Perhaps these were at first intended to reinforce each other and add to the volume of sound. But, in any case it became in time a recognized principle that the classicum, the clash of several bells ringing at once, constituted an element of joy and solemnity befitting great feasts.
Bells were also used to note the passing of fellow parishioners, which is what the phrase "for whom the bell tolls" refers to. More from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
This was extended later to parish churches, and a bell was rung to announce that a parishioner was in his agony, which seemingly developed further into a bell tolled after his decease to solicit prayers for his soul.
One of my favorite use of bells is when they are rung at the consecration during mass. They could be sanctus bells, like the ones pictured at the right, or the church bells themselves which lets those in the surrounding area know that the consecration is happening at that moment.
From the introduction of the Elevation of the Host in the Mass at the beginning of the thirteenth century it seems to have been customary to ring one of the great bells of the church, at any rate during the principal Mass, at the moment when the Sacred Host was raised on high. This was to give warning to the people at work in the fields in order that they might momentarily kneel down and make an act of adoration.
You can hear what the sanctus bells sound like in this video:
I love the idea of bells that call us to prayer wherever we are and whatever we're doing. Below is a lovely painting by Millet entitled The Angelus which depicts peasants stopping in the field to pray as, presumably, the Angelus bell rings from the church in the background. Makes me wish there was a bell tower right by my house to remind me to pray throughout the day! ;-)
There's a great article with more on the Church's use of bells here, and finally, some scripture to top it off.
On its skirts you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet stuff, around its skirts, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, round about on the skirts of the robe. And it shall be upon Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, lest he die. (Exodus 28:33-5)
Praise Him with sounding cymbals; praise Him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! (Ps 150:5-6)
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! (Ps 98:4)
Photo of church bells by Jane Pocock