I Own Every Bell That Tolls Me
February 8, 2009 6:58 PM   Subscribe

"I own every bell that tolls me" What does this mean to you?

Neko Case's Fox Confessor Brings The Flood helped me through a rough time, and I love this line. I'm seriously considering getting it tattooed on my arm. But I want to make sure that it makes sense. I take that line to be about taking ownerships for mistakes made. Which I can definately identify with. What do you think?
posted by heavenstobetsy to Grab Bag (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well to me it would seem to mean "I am only compelled by things under my control" but I could be totally wrong.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:07 PM on February 8, 2009

I take it as a sort of an "I am the captain of my soul" sort of thing. The obvious reference here is of course to "never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Not having the line in context, I read it as a kind of defiance of that sentiment.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:11 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

My first reaction is to wonder what it means for a bell to toll someone, rather than toll for someone. But I guess lyrics get a pass on copyediting. Or maybe it's a usage I haven't seen before.

Perhaps "I am in charge of ("own") my reputation, whether and how I am mourned, etc." is how I'd interpret it.
posted by hattifattener at 7:15 PM on February 8, 2009

Best answer: Well, the phrase "for whom the bell tolls" (see Donne, Hetfield, et al.) generally refers to entropy, that is, bells toll when a person or persons die and in hearing this bell tolling we are reminded not only of death in particular or in general, but of its inevitability and its universality. That is, the bell is tolling for a particular person at this particular moment, yes, but in the end, it might as well be tolling for any of us. We are all part of the same finite organism, humanity, and the bell is tolling our own decay as much as anybody else's.

So what does it mean to "own every bell that tolls me"? Frankly, it's poetic license. If the bell is tolling you then you're dead, so obviously you "own" that particular toll, but you're not going to know about it. I guess Neko Case is maybe trying to say that she is aware of the fact that death approaches steadily, but is still empowered to live life, and not in fear.

It helps to quote the entire lyrics because context is very useful in this case:

I can say that I've lived here in honor and danger
But I'm just an animal and cannot explain a life
Down this chain of days I wished to stay among my people
Relation now means nothing, having chosen so defined

And if death should smell my breathing
As it pass beneath my window
Let it lead me trembling, trembling
I own every bell that tolls me

posted by turgid dahlia at 7:18 PM on February 8, 2009 [6 favorites]

In the context of the passage from which Hemingway derived his bell tolling reference, the bell that tolls is a funeral bell that reminds the listener he is part of mankind. This reference seems to be something entirely different. The full lyrics are: "And if death should smell my breathing As it pass/ beneath my window Let it lead me trembling,/ trembling I own every bell that tolls me." I would agree with your interpretation. It's "own" in the sense of "acknowledge," and not a defiant "control" of the bell or of one's destiny.
posted by beagle at 7:18 PM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

The verb "own" is also a (fairly arcane) synonym for "acknowledge" and I suspect that that is the sense used here.
posted by yclipse at 7:18 PM on February 8, 2009

If I saw it at a glance and had no idea of the context, I'd read it as pretty arrogant: using money or power to get out of repercussions; considering oneself immune because of status; "These bells are mine to silence, I'll be damned if I'm going to let them toll for me" sort of thing.
posted by CKmtl at 7:20 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I guess what I'm saying is this would be a pretty cool tattoo to have if you're genuinely set on getting any tattoo at all. You could even Latin it up for further gravitas.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:21 PM on February 8, 2009

I think it means "I recognize the deaths of everyone who dies" or more generally "I am not particularly afraid of my own death because the death of any man diminishes me and that happens an awful lot, don't you know" (I am reading "own" as "acknowledge" like, owning up to a mistake, not as in "have material possession of"). On preview, this is very similar to turgid dahlia's reading. But the song is pretty ambiguous. It is definitely riffing on the Donne but it is not clear which side it comes down on--on one hand there's "I'm just an animal" and "relation now means nothing" but on the other you've got "I chose to stay among my people" and these seem like sort of contradictory sentiments. The quote could just as well mean "I am so isolated that nobody's death affects me, and mine affects no-one else's life--I might as well be the private owner of the bell that tolls for me because I am the only person it tolls for."
posted by phoenixy at 7:27 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Huh. I always thought she was saying, "I earned every bell that tolls me." Went back and listened with headphones - it does sound an awful lot like "own", but I think the meanings might be equivalent. Rather than acknowledging her fate, she could be accepting it because she led a good life - with honor and, um, danger.
posted by McBearclaw at 7:38 PM on February 8, 2009

In context of the other lyrics, I agree with Turgid. Alone, I thought it meant that "I was the crafter of my own demise" or my death will be born of my own creation.

Nice thing about that line is that everyone will think it means something different - you can learn a lot more about what people think it means than what you tell them it means. Revel in the ambiguity.

Well, until you get sick of drunkies telling you what it means.
posted by OrangeDrink at 7:40 PM on February 8, 2009

turgid dahlia's context clarifies quite a bit, and I agree. Though I'll second that what it means to you is the most important thing, particularly with a tattoo. One of mine, for instance, is an old alchemical symbol. I have zero interest in alchemy or any kind of occult symbolism, but it (and its constituent elements) bear a relation to my family history that I like.

The only time I gave a shit about what someone else might think about a tattoo of mine was when I backed away from getting a symbol from Norse mythology (that, again, had a personal connection for me) when I googled it and found out that neo-nazis have appropriated it.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:49 PM on February 8, 2009

I take it to mean that every urge you have and thus the impetus for each urge (each bell) is under your control. You may not realize it but you are responsible for even your most primal urges and whether or not they are fulfilled. This line means that you are in control of every force that propels you through life.

That being said... I love this quote! Good luck.
posted by jay.eye.elle.elle. at 7:50 PM on February 8, 2009

It's supposed to suggest that you're in charge of your own destiny. Rather than being at the whims of fate. (bells tolling representing death or inevitability)
posted by dead cousin ted at 7:56 PM on February 8, 2009

The being in charge inference holds, for me, even when tolling is heard in any of its most mundane, everyday, least-fraught senses: Summoning, alarming, alerting, sounding. Thus: "When any kind of bell signals me, it's a bell I own, and that I set to tolling…"
posted by dpcoffin at 8:16 PM on February 8, 2009

As a poet, I hear it saying, "What resonates with me, moves me, makes me feel, is mine and part of my domain."
posted by Riverine at 8:25 PM on February 8, 2009

It makes no sense at all. If it said "I own every bell that tolls for me," that would be one thing. If I saw someone with this as a tattoo, I would inevitable want to take a sharpie and add a "for". I'd want to; I'd have to be pretty drunk to just go up and do it.
posted by Hildegarde at 8:30 PM on February 8, 2009

It makes no sense at all. If it said "I own every bell that tolls for me," that would be one thing.

I disagree. "tolls me" is the bell is actually ringing the person, not ringing for the person.

The line, alone, not with the lyrics, suggests to me that you are the one responsible for everything that happens in your life. Giving up blaming external events for how your life plays out.
posted by Vaike at 8:45 PM on February 8, 2009

I'd interpret it along the lines of "I won't let this kill me. I'll be the one deciding how and when I go." I see it almost as a warcry of someone who's survived something big, an illness or a terrible tragedy.

Or I would if it was "I own every bell that tolls for me". The way it's currently written, I'd just wonder if the tattoo artist made a mistake.
posted by Relic at 9:08 PM on February 8, 2009

I agree with turgid dahlia.

Great song, great album.
posted by rtha at 9:15 PM on February 8, 2009

Oh also, on the usage or lack thereof of the word "for"--we are used to hearing "toll" in this sense with "for" after it, but it's not necessarily required; dictionary.com cites the usage "tolling a departed friend" from Henry IV part II.
posted by phoenixy at 9:37 PM on February 8, 2009

My own interpretation:

Throughout history, who has owned the bells? The church? Sure. Bells call us pray or tell us when to mourn the dead. Bells are also tied to clocks, or rather the passage of time. In this sense to say you own the bells which tolls you means, that the forces which compel you are your own or are of your own making. In other words God or Time itself is below you and your own volition.

It's a powerful statement of independence, strong will, self determination, even... audacity (note that audacity itself shares a root with audible...)

I think it's make an awesome tattoo. Go for it!
posted by wfrgms at 9:39 PM on February 8, 2009

It sounds really arrogant to me. Suggesting that you are so powerful, or rich, that no external events can cause you problems.
posted by delmoi at 10:25 PM on February 8, 2009

I feel the same way about that line, heavenstobetsy.

I've taken it to mean something like "I accept the sum of my life." That is, taking both blame and credit where each is due, but with a completeness that acknowledges a certain complexity--we can't always know what the final outcome of our choices will be, but we can own our choices. A sense that one can be prepared for death by understanding that it is coming and recognizing that we cannot completely control our legacy.

It's ambiguous; that's why it resonates so much, and why it might continue to mean a lot to you over time. It doesn't need to mean just one thing!

If you're worried about how other people would interpret it, you could get it written small somewhere inconspicuous, or instead of the words themselves, a symbol--a bell? a fox?--that will remind you of them.
posted by hippugeek at 10:37 PM on February 8, 2009

Nthing dalia. Also yes, great song on a great album. Would be a great tattoo.

You could even Latin it up for further gravitas.

Please don't do that.
posted by rokusan at 11:00 PM on February 8, 2009

Well, I'm a real believer in writing lyrics which deliberately can be interpreted in a lot of different ways so that people can apply it to their own lives. I started doing this after I asked a painter friend of mine about little outlines in his otherwise abstract work. He explained he wanted people to just think about stuff and make up their own meanings for them. Even the artist's intended meaning does not have priority over yours in that situation. I think Ms. Case would fully understand that.

I think people bring stuff to art they interact with. I've worked off those principles for a while now.

It could mean a lot of things. First it could mean that the only people who are going to mourn you are people you control. It could mean I'm not famous enough to be celebrated in death by anyone who I do not knoQw personally. Or it could mQean I own the circumstance of everything which is mourning every metaphorical death or parting I've been involved with. Note that the bells could be ringing for death or other circumstance.

It could also be just in there because it sounds cool. Or, gasp, filler, which happens.

She uses bells in other tunes too, cf. "Deep Red Bells."

Now I got that whole song in my head.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:03 AM on February 9, 2009

It's a nice line. My personal reading of it would be similar to Showbiz Liz's, but I can see how it could be along the lines of "both accepting and defying death" too.
posted by Drexen at 5:03 AM on February 9, 2009

I disagree. "tolls me" is the bell is actually ringing the person, not ringing for the person.

This doesn't make any sense either. Bells don't ring people. Clappers ring bells. Now, if it were "I own every clapper that whacks into me and makes me ring", you might have a point that a person might be ringing. Is that like your ears ringing?
posted by Hildegarde at 5:16 AM on February 9, 2009

In other news: "I own every bell that tolls (for) me" could also be a very lonely statement. No one celebrates or recognizes me but me?
posted by Hildegarde at 5:18 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've always interpreted "tolls me" as "calls me." Still in the realm of death, but more like being summoned than being mourned.
posted by hippugeek at 5:33 AM on February 9, 2009

Without having read anyone else's answer -

'For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee' to me means 'Go find out for whose death the church bell is mourning - oh, it's effectively morning my own death, since we are all related.'

So 'I own every bell that tolls me' means something like 'the outpouring of sympathy for me is not genuine; the bell ringer is only doing what I pay him to do.'
posted by jfrancis at 8:26 AM on February 9, 2009

it sounds a little arrogant to me, overly sure of one's awareness of or control over the unknowable. I would interpret as meaning something like "I accept death". But even if you have reached a place of peace with the notion of death, a) does one need to outwardly proclaim "I am enlightened"? and b) these things are continual habits, not finalities, which is to say, you may 'own every bell' right now, but if, say, you face the death of a child, or spouse, or even your own old age (whatever tragedy or ordinary part of life occurs) who knows how accepting of those 'bells' you will feel. Perhaps you will have times where you will feel more along the lines of 'do not go gentle in to that good night' instead...

which is not to say you shouldn't get a tattoo, though - one thing that is neat about tattoos is that it connects you back to past versions of yourself, so even if you would later not get the same thing, you will remember the version of yourself who did... Basically, do what feels right to you, and you will always have memories and reinterpretations.
posted by mdn at 9:40 AM on February 9, 2009

To me it means something like: by fully accepting all the circumstances of my life, I am no longer controlled by them. In other words, I have no need to blame something external for what occurs.

It's not an arrogant statement like, "I control everything that happens"; but something more like, when I accept everything that happens, there is nothing but freedom, because there is nothing left to struggle against. I become master of the situation not by imposing control, but by letting go of control.
posted by dixie flatline at 10:13 AM on February 9, 2009

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