The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe

‘The Bells’ was published posthumously and written sometime in early 1848. The work was submitted three times to the same publication, Sartain’s Union Magazine, until it was accepted. It was published the next year, in November 1849 after Poe had died. 

Poe may have been inspired to write this piece by Marie Louise Shew, who helped care for Poe’s wife while she was dying. She may have suggested to the poet to use ringing bells as the initial starting point from which to write. The poem has a distinct musical quality which was no doubt influenced by the sound and rhythm of the ringing bells, perhaps those of Fordham University’s bell tower. 

 

Summary of The Bells 

‘The Bells’ by Edgar Allan Poe is an incredibly melodic poem that depicts a growing horror through the personification of ringing bells. 

The speaker takes the reader through four different states that a set of large iron bells inhabits. The first two are pleasurable. Their ringing brings a delightful sound and melody to all those who listen. But, as the poem progresses things change and the bells start to speak of something darker and far less pleasant. The pattern of the ringing changes so that everyone who listens knows that something terrible has happened or is about to. It is possible to interpret this piece as a progression from happiness, or birth, to terror, or death. 

 

Structure of The Bells 

‘The Bells’ by Edgar Allan Poe is a four-part poem that is divided into uneven stanzas. These stanzas range in length from fourteen lines up to forty-four.  The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme but there is so much rhyme, end rhyme and internal rhyme, in the poem that it reads as though there is a constant rhyme scheme. There are also examples of half-rhyme. For instance, “crystalline” and “time” in lines eight and nine of the first stanza.

The majority of the lines in ‘The Bells’ are written with the meter of trochaic tetrameter but there are moments, such as in the lines that repeat the word “bells” where it changes to iambic. 

 

Poetic Techniques in The Bells 

Poe uses several poetic techniques in ‘The Bells’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and repetition. The latter is the most obvious of all the techniques at play in this poem. Through the use of repetition Poe is able to create to the musical melody/rhythm that unites the four parts of the poem and mimics the sounds of the bells. For example, “Keeping time, time, time” and “As he knells, knells, knells”. Plus, there is the refrain, the repetition of “bells” that appears at the end of every stanza. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “happiness” and “harmony” in line three of the second part and “frantic fire” in part three.

Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. This technique becomes more obvious as the poem progresses and the bells are described as experiencing a certain “horror”. 

 

Analysis of The Bells 

Part I

        Hear the sledges with the bells—

Silver bells!

What a world of merriment their melody foretells!

How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,

In the icy air of night!

While the stars that oversprinkle

All the heavens, seem to twinkle

With a crystalline delight;

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the tintinabulation that so musically wells

From the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells—

From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

The first part of ‘The Bells’ is fourteen lines long and introduces the bells with bright, cheery, and light-hearted imagery. Poe uses words like “Silver,” “merriment” and “melody” in the first lines. These create a positive and uplifting atmosphere that hints at a cool winter day and the twinkling of lights. He brings in images of the “icy air of night” and the “stars that oversprinkle” the sky. There are several coined words in this poem, “oversprinkle” is one example, as is “tintinabulation” later on in this stanza.

He describes how the sky, the “heavens” seems to “Twinkle / With a crystalline delight”. Generally, this image is related to one of youth and newness. Everything feels pure, joyful, and new. This is going to change as the poem progresses and the images get darker, alluding to age. 

There are several examples of repetition n this first part of ‘The Bells’. For example “time, time, time” and “tinkle, tinkle, tinkle”. There is also the refrain that ends each stanza where the word “bells” is used several times in a row. 

 

Part II 

Lines 1-10

        Hear the mellow wedding bells,

Golden bells!

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!

In the first part of part two the speaker progresses towards “wedding bells”. They are “golden” rather than silver, perhaps references a progression through time and inherent changes that come with age. The images are still uplifting and speak of “harmony” and the “balmy air of night”. There is “delight” and “molten-golden notes” coming from the bells. They are beautiful and sing out a “liquid ditty,” or tune that even the “turtle-dove” wants to listen to. 

 

Lines 11-21 

         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!

In the second half of the poem there are more examples of repetition. There is also an example of anaphora with “how it” beginning lines thirteen and fourteen. These lines continue to speaker positively of the future. They are foretelling something of the future, of “the rapture that impels / To the swinging and the ringing / Of the bells”. The refrain, which consists of a repetition of “bells” is used again at the end of this stanza. 

Poe created a very easy pattern to fall into with these lines, between the end and internal rhymes, as well as the half-rhymes distributed throughout ‘The Bells’ the poem moves quickly and melodically. 

 

Part III 

Lines 1-15 

         Hear the loud alarum bells—

Brazen bells!

What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!

In the startled ear of night

How they scream out their affright!

Too much horrified to speak,

They can only shriek, shriek,

Out of tune,

In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,

In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,

Leaping higher, higher, higher,

With a desperate desire,

And a resolute endeavor

Now—now to sit or never,

By the side of the pale-faced moon.

The third part of ‘The Bells’ is the second-longest. It is where things start to change. Now the bells are “Brazen” and they have a very different story to tell. It is a “tale of terror, now their “turbulency tells”.They are ringing quickly and turbulently. It is startling sound so much so that the speaker says that they seem to “scream out their affright!” This is a great example of personification, especially after the light “delight” of the bell’s sound. 

Poe uses sibilance in this stanza with the repetition of words like “speak” and “shriek”. The bells are no longer in harmony they are “Out of tune” and “clamorous” seeking out the “mercy of the fire”. While the night was peaceful in the first stanza the third describe it very differently. 

 

Lines 16-34 

            Oh, the bells, bells, bells!

What a tale their terror tells

Of Despair!

How they clang, and clash, and roar!

What a horror they outpour

On the bosom of the palpitating air!

Yet the ear it fully knows,

By the twanging,

And the clanging,

How the danger ebbs and flows;

Yet the ear distinctly tells,

In the jangling,

And the wrangling.

How the danger sinks and swells,

By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells—

Of the bells—

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells—

In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

In the second half of this stanza there is an example of alliteration with “tale their terror tells” in the seventeenth line. The bells tell of “Despair!” While in the first stanza the bells might’ve been ringing for an initial joy such as a birth or engagement, and in this second ringing for a wedding, the third appears to be for death, as does the fourth.

Something terrible has happened and the bells are reacting to it, ringing out of control pouring out “horror” into the air. 

It is easy for anyone listening to the bells to know what they’re speaking of. It is pure terror, fear beyond anyone’s ability to process. After several more examples of alliteration and allusions to death and horror the stanza ends with another repetition of the refrain.

 

Part IV 

Lines 1-16

          Hear the tolling of the bells—

Iron bells!

What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!

In the silence of the night,

How we shiver with affright

At the melancholy menace of their tone!

For every sound that floats

From the rust within their throats

Is a groan.

And the people—ah, the people—

They that dwell up in the steeple,

All alone,

And who tolling, tolling, tolling,

In that muffled monotone,

Feel a glory in so rolling

On the human heart a stone—

The final stanza, or part, of ‘The Bells’ is the longest, running for forty-four lines. The “Iron bells” are ringing out solemnly in these first lines. They are less chaotic than they were previously but the nature of the fear, disaster, or loss has not changed. Now, the sound of the bells strikes a quieter horror into those listening. Everyone who hears them knows that they groan out with sorrow and fear. The personification is continued throughout this stanza as it has been in the previous. 

 

Lines 17-29 

     They are neither man nor woman—

They are neither brute nor human—

are Ghouls:

And their king it is who tolls;

And he rolls, rolls, rolls,

Rolls

A pæan from the bells!

And his merry bosom swells

With the pæan of the bells!

And he dances, and he yells;

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the pæan of the bells—

The speaker describes a “people” up in the bell tower who take pleasure in rolling a stone onto the human heart. They are “Ghouls” and it is their “king…who tolls” and “rolls, rolls, rolls” a song of triumph from the bells. He is bolstered and encouraged by the sound. It brings him pleasure. 

 

Lines 30-44

               Of the bells:

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the throbbing of the bells—

Of the bells, bells, bells—

To the sobbing of the bells;

Keeping time, time, time,

As he knells, knells, knells,

In a happy Runic rhyme,

To the rolling of the bells—

Of the bells, bells, bells—

To the tolling of the bells,

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells—

Bells, bells, bells—

To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

The last lines have several examples of repetition. The speaker uses a metaphor to compare the sound of the bells to a “sort of Runic rhyme”. It is “throbbing” and keeping “time, time, time” as if its the steady beating of a heart. The poem concludes with another description of the bells as “moaning and groaning”. They are suffering at the hand of this king of ghouls who rings the bells, taking pleasure in the horror he is creating and/or encouraging. 

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