‘The Bell’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Emerson has chosen to conform his text to the rhyming pattern of abab cdcd efef ghig. The only moment where the alternating rhyming scheme changes are in the second to last pair of rhyming lines. These last lines are very impactful in that their movement is mimicked in the text itself. The third and fourth lines flow fluidly together as the “wind…sweeps” the speaker’s “native shore.”
Additionally, a reader will notice that unity is found within the length of the lines. The rhyming lines match almost exactly in length within their stanzas. This can be seen most prominently within the third stanza. There are also a large number of instances in which Emerson has chosen to repeat the starting word of a phrase. One can look to the first and second stanzas for the most noticeable examples.
Summary of The Bell
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by telling one specific bell that it is “mellow.” This “iron” sounding instrument functions in a variety of different ways. It notifies one of birth, death, and “heaven or hell.” Life and time are marked by its chiming.
In the next two stanzas, the speaker moves through a number of different moments a bell can be used. The first of these is to notify a ship that land is near. This is a joyous occasion that is then contrasted with the quiet moments of attending church. Its history stretches back to a time that mysticism ruled. Emerson’s speaker mentions “good men” attempting to “Disarm” thunder and lightning with the sound of a bell.
The poem concludes with the speaker bringing the narrative back to his own life. There has been some tragedy in the area. It is far-stretching enough to call for a “death-bell.” The sound is going to be heard across the shore and mix with the wind and the speaker’s own requiem.
Analysis of The Bell
I love thy music, mellow bell,
I love thine iron chime,
To life or death, to heaven or hell,
Which calls the sons of Time.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by stating that he has a few great loves. The first of these is “thy music.” A reader does not have much time to wonder whose sound the speaker is referring to. The words are “mellow bell,” follow directly after. It is to the “bell” mentioned in the title of the poem the speaker is addressing himself to.
While the bell’s sound is generally “mellow,” it also makes an “iron chime.” These features are quite easy to imagine. A bell is almost a universally present object. This particular bell holds an important spot within the speaker’s mind. It represents both “life” and “death” at separate moments. A church or city bell was, and still is in some places, rung to celebrate a birth or acknowledge a death. The bell taps into “heaven or hell” and is able to speak to the “sons of Time.”
From these first lines, a reader can interpret the speaker’s tone as being reverential. He clearly feels deeply about the bell and the purpose it serves. As the poem continues it will be made evident that it is not one specific bell he is interested in. The speaker is dedicating his words to all bells and all the various purposes they serve.
Thy voice upon the deep
The home-bound sea-boy hails,
It charms his cares to sleep,
It cheers him as he sails.
In the second stanza, the speaker moves beyond his own opinions about the bell to explain how it influences those at sea. For one who is “home-bound” on a ship a bell signifies land. In this context, it has a very different job than it does within a city or home. The sound of the bell would be a joyous one. All on the ship would hear it, know what it meant, and be “cheer[ed]” by the prospect of seeing land again.
At this point, a reader’s imagination should be stimulated. With the various uses for a bell already being made clear, one might consider how a bell, or the sound of a bell, influences their own life. Depends on the context, a ringing bell can mean any number of vastly different things.
To house of God and heavenly joys
Thy summons called our sires,
And good men thought thy sacred voice
Disarmed the thunder’s fires.
The third stanza describes two additional jobs a bell has fulfilled. Both of these are more ephemeral than those mentioned in the previous section. First, the speaker mentions the “house of God.” When a town hears the sound of a bell, all know it is time to go to church. This is a practice that has been going on for a long time. The speaker uses the word “sires” in these lines. He is connecting one’s forefathers to the same practices that go on today.
In the next two lines, he looks further back in time. He sees the “good men” of the past who thought bells could influence the elements. In this case, it was the “Disarm[ing]” of thunder and lightning they were looking for. This section adds an element of mysticism different from the structured faith of the church. It taps into a different kind of history that is even more universal.
And soon thy music, sad death-bell,
Shall lift its notes once more,
And mix my requiem with the wind
That sweeps my native shore.
The final four lines return the narration to the speaker. At this moment he is looking at one specific bell and predicting the role it is soon to play. Rather than celebrating something wonderful, the bell is going to be acting as a “death-bell” in the coming days. There is some “sad” occasion it is going to mark.
The speaker notes that this is not the first time the bell has had to play this role. The “notes” are being lifted “once more.” While Emerson does not directly state what has happened or is about to, one can assume that someone, or perhaps a number of people, have died. The prediction grows with the addition of the speaker’s
“native shore” in the last line. This connects the experience to the entire area of the country, rather than the speaker’s personal life.
Emerson’s speaker states that his “requiem” or song for the dead, is going to mix with the “wind” and the bell. These melodies will travel through his land and help the inhabitants in their time of mourning.