Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "The Broken Bell"


The poem "The Broken Bell" is from Dutt's A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), and is a translation of a Charles Baudelaire poem. It describes the sound of a bell on a winter night, which the speaker listens to as they sit by the fire. As they continue to listen to the clear and crisp sound of the bell's peal, the speaker is struck by a series of memories and compares the bell's sound to an energetic and active soldier. By contrast, the speaker describes the "soul-bell" of their own interior voice as a weak soldier, one who can't help but lie helplessly as he is surrounded by the enemy. By the poem's end, we are thus provided with a meditation on the sublime and transcendent power of music, which the speaker feels is superior to the human potential or power to create music or poetry. We are also clued into what is likely the speaker's own experience of wartime, a deeply painful and chaotic memory that stands out against their current tranquil life.


In terms of form and rhyme, the poem is a formal Petrarchan sonnet, written in fourteen lines with an ABBAABBACDCDCD rhyme scheme. The first eight lines of the sonnet (the octave) describes the "bitter-sweet" sound of the bell as it sounds through the landscape that surrounds the speaker—a landscape of "fogs," "darkness," and "wind." The speaker comments on how the bell cuts through the hostile surroundings on the winter night and reaches them by the "palpitating" fire. It would seem that this action of cutting through the darkness brings only sweetness to the speaker, who comments wistfully on the "recollections" brought on by the bell and suggests that it brings "honest greetings" and "consolations kind." Even when told of its "solemn warnings," we are still situated firmly in the realm of something welcome and looked forward to by the speaker.

After the octave, however, a turn (or volta) occurs that shows us exactly why the speaker's experience of the bell's sound is not just sweet, but "bitter-sweet." The recollections that are spurred by the bell are not wistful, but rather recollections of soldiers and wartime. While the speaker envisions the bell as a constant and watchful soldier, calling out danger with its noise, the speaker sees their own soul as a helpless and ineffective soldier who simply lies on the ground and watches as the enemy moves in. The poem's close on "The dead and dying in a tangled mass" is so gruesome and shocking that we almost do not notice the noise of the speaker's soul. And just as we are told that the speaker's soul—personified as a soldier—"utters," our focus is redirected emphasize the soul's impotence, since the soul is "unable or to move or die."

While on a literal level, the poem's form and rhyme tell the story of a speaker who is slowly moved by the powerful noise of a bell to recall a past marked by conflict and struggle, it is also on a figurative level about the creation of poetry and the weakness of the human voice. While the bell is able to spread its noise over the landscape, reach many people, and move the speaker to recall a long gone past, the speaker's own voice, or "soul-bell," is interior. As such, the speaker laments that they are unable to bring out the same flood of emotions as the bell. While the bell always serves its function as an active instrument—either marking time or serving as a warning—the speaker laments their own inability to help the dead as they lay on the ground, "unable or to move or die."

The speaker's weak utterance on the battlefield also figuratively stands in for the poet's frustration with their inability to write poetry as powerful as the bell's sound. This frustration with the artificial, man-made beauty of a poem is underscored by the poem's adherence to the rigid Petrarchan sonnet form: if the speaker is able to create poetry and beauty, it is only in a limited form that may not be effective. Unlike the man-made yet sublime beauty of the bell which spurs the speaker's recollections, the speaker's own "soul-bell" is weak and represents "The Broken Bell" that titles the poem.

In "The Broken Bell," then, Toru Dutt's translating ability allows her to continue to interrogate the fundamental questions that crop up time and again in her body of work—the relationship of the poet to beauty, the effectiveness of poetry as a medium to communicate or reveal the nature of beauty, and the experience of loss.