Two poems of bells and hills: Aaron Fisher and John Rollin Ridge

This morning, when reading The Way of Tea by Aaron Fisher (mainly prose, interspersed with some poetry), I was struck by this particular poem he included:

As the leaves of this tree are,
I too am made of the water, the sky, sun, and stars;
I share this essence with all the Ten-Thousand Things.
And in so doing, empty myself and my cup.
As tea, I am now free to transcend the moment,
Finding Heaven in a leaf.
I ride the cinnabar mists
Beyond the temple stairs
And blue peaks
To soar beneath the unveiled moon,
Glancing downward but once,
When the temple bells chimed.

I interpret this poem as the speaker feeling enlightened while drinking tea in a temple. The bond he feels between himself and the tea lifts him beyond the earthly trappings of the temple as he feels himself rising on a cloud of incense toward the mountains. He glances downward when he hears the temple bells chime, but he’s already beneath the unveiled moon: he experiences revelation apart from the temple itself, through direct communion with nature. So, I felt that Fisher’s work reflects something similar to American transcendentalism, which I realize is Asian-inspired in part, as is Fisher’s perspective. Something that felt more transcendentalist about this poem for me, more American than Asian, was the emphasis on the individual experience, while the speaker finds his position in the non-hierarchical collection of earthly bodies.

In the context of the book itself, this choice makes a lot of sense, since this piece functions to complement Fisher’s explanation of how tea works as a means to understand the Tao for a contemporary Western audience.

One of the first poems I puzzled over by Cherokee poet John Rollin Ridge came to my mind when I read Fisher’s lines. The speaker’s vantage point on the hill, listening to these ringing bells from a remote location, reminded me of how Fisher’s speaker was also removed from the source of the bells in his poem:

THE SABBATH BELLS

THE Sabbath bells are ringing
With clear and cheerful notes,
And from the steeple springing,
Far off the music floats.

To yonder mountains reaches,
The ever rising strain,
And Echo’s dying speeches
Repeat it o’er again.

The summer woodlands filling,
The solemn cadence rolls,
And through the leaves is thrilling
Like soft, pulsating souls.

The air with rippling motion,
Aeolian answers gives,
And like a trembling ocean,
Its outspread bosom heaves.

The far horizon sweeping,
Each tone majestic swells,
And all the world is leaping
Beneath the sounding bells.

‘Tis solemn, yet ’tis cheerful,
A clear and pleasant voice,
That bids the sad and tearful
Be hopeful and rejoice.
Let sabbath morns unclouded
Still hear these tones of peace,
For earth with woe is shrouded
When sabbath bells, shall cease.

Reading Fisher’s verses brought me back to this poem, which of course expresses a very different idea, in a completely different context. The speaker is listening to bells from a Christian church on Sunday morning, and the sound of these clanging bells is permeating everything around him: the leaves, even the wind. Here, the speaker portrays the sound as omnipresent, while in Fisher’s poem, the speaker glances briefly toward the sound, already spiritually connected through other means. It is as though in this instance the bells are the spiritual source: these man-made objects synonymous with God, who can be present on earth but is clearly distinct from it.

Ridge implies in the last lines that human-instituted religion is necessary for peace to reign. The speaker of the poem is not in the church, however, but outside, listening to the effect of the bells on the hills and seemingly finding a consolation in religious institutions. His perspective may not necessarily be opposed to Fisher’s, which represents finding peace through independent means, since Ridge’s speaker himself is not worshipping in the church, nor indicating a desire to do so.

I find in this poem a certain gratitude for the early Western churches that had sprung up, further “civilizing” the West, and perhaps providing a tempering influence against a more lawless past where he experienced violence or crime in his surroundings, especially if I place it in a Californian context. The poem is particularly interesting to me because it goes to such lengths to describe and draw out the permeating sound of the bells, and in the last lines, leaves the reader to imagine a land without their spiritual influence, briefly hinting at former darkness. So he is implying that religious institutions are necessary for humanity in general, though he, interestingly, is standing outside of that institution.