{dfp-include} The Bells: A Study Guide
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The Bells
A Poem by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Date of Publication
Assessment of the Poem
Bells: Death's Accomplice
Text With Explanations
Author Information
Notes and Annotation by Michael J. Cummings..© 2006
Type of Work and Date of Publication

......."The Bells" is a four-stanza lyric poem that first appeared in 1849 in the November issue of Sartain's Union Magazine of Literature and Art. Poe is said to have sold the poem for $15. The first book to publish the poem was said to be The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe, printed in London in 1888 by John H. Ingram. 

Inspiration for the Poem

.......Poe wrote an early, shorter version of "The Bells" while living in a cottage in the village of Fordham, now part of New York City but then outside the city limits. He had moved from the city to Fordham in 1846 in hopes that its rural atmosphere and climate would improve the health of his wife, Virginia, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Virginia's mother, Maria Clemm, also resided there. The manuscript of this early handwritten version, dated May 1848, bears the name "Mrs. M. L. Shew," who had been nursing Virginia. Apparently Mrs. Shew (Mary Louise Shew, referred to in documents after 1848 as Mary Louise Shew Houghton) had proposed that Poe write "The Bells" and even suggested the opening lines of the stanzas of the first version. Supposedly, she and Poe drew inspiration from the bell ringing at nearby St. John's College, now Fordham University. 
.......Poe often walked its campus, and he befriended the Jesuit priests who operated the college. Some writers have suggested that another bell provided the inspirationthe bell at the Bleeker Street Presbyterian Church, for example, or the bell at St. Mark's in the Bowery. In the end, though, it was the tintinnabulation of Poe's gray matter that he attempted to express in the poem. 

Assessment of the Poem

.......Some critics regard the poem as masterly; other critics regard it as shallow and sing-song. The latter criticsincluding many 20th and 21st Century poetstend to eschew rhyming poetry because of its emphasis on form and musicality over substance. It is true that the "The Bells" is highly musical, in keeping with Poe's belief that a poem should appeal to the ear. In the November 1849 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, John Reuben Thomson commented on the musicality of the poem: 

    The poems of Mr. Poe are remarkable above all other characteristics, for the exceeding melody of the versification. “Ulalume” might be cited as a happy instance of this quality, but we prefer to quote “The Bells” from the last number of the Union Magazine. It was the design of the author, as he himself told us, to express in language the exact sounds of bells to the ear. He has succeeded, we think, far better than [Robert] Southey, who attempted a similar feat, to tell us “how the waters come down at Lodore” (694-697).
The Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote a symphony based on the poem. It contains four movements in imitation of the four stanzas of "The Bells," as translated into Russian. Yes, the poem is musical. However, it is not true that it lacks substance, as the analysis on this page attempts to demonstrate. 


Death ultimately triumphs over life (or, life is a journey toward death)

.......The bells ring joyfully in youth. However, even as they ring, death lurks in the background. For example, in the first stanza, the narrator hears the tinkling sleigh bells at night (line 5), meaning the darkness of death (night) is present at the beginning of life. In the second stanza, the bells ringing in celebration of the wedding resound "through the balmy air of night," meaning the darkness of death is present in young adulthood. In third stanza, the bells ring "in the startled ear of night," meaning  the darkness of death is present in middle age and later, when fire begins to consume the exuberance of youth. In the fourth stanza, the bells ring "in the silence of the night," meaning death has triumphed over life. 

The Bells as Death's Accomplice

.......In the first stanza, the bells keep time in a "Runic rhyme," a mysterious rhyme that pleases the ear. Thus, the bells become death's accomplice, marking the passing of timeeach second, hour, day, yearwith beautiful sounds that continue until life ends and the king of the ghouls tolls the death knell (stanza 4). The ghouls, demons who feed on the flesh of the dead, are happy to welcome death's victims. Their happiness mockingly echoes the joy expressed in the first stanza. Moreover, the bells that the ghoul tolls also peal with a "Runic rhyme," like the bells in the first stanza. That characteristic of the bells is the same one that celebrated youth and marriage in stanzas 1 and 2. From the ghouls' perspective, young people are the future food of the ghouls. And married people produce new youths. All the while, the bells keep time, counting each passing moment. 

Onomatopoeia and Alliteration

.......Onomatopoeia and alliteration occur throughout the poem, helping to support the musicality of the poem. Onomatopoeia, a figure of speech in which a word imitates a sound, occurs in such words as tinkling, jingling, chiming, shriek, twanging, clanging, and clang. Alliteration, in which words repeat consonant sounds, occurs in such groups as "bells, bells, bells" and "tinkle, tinkle, tinkle." Other examples of alliteration are the following:

    What a world of merriment their melody foretells! (Stanza 1, third line)
    What a world of happiness their harmony foretells! (Stanza 2, third line)
    What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells! (Stanza 3, third line)

.......The third line of the first stanza (What a world of merriment their melody foretells!) and the third line of second stanza (What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!) are correct in their predictions. Ironically, however, it is the king of the ghouls who fulfills the predictions. Stanza 4 says, 

    ". . . . . .his merry bosom swells"
    With the paean of the bells!
    And he dances, and he yells;
    Keeping time, time, time,
    In a sort of Runic rhyme,
    To the paean of the bells

.......The poem has four stanzas with end rhyme occurring sometimes in two successive lines, sometimes in three, and sometimes in four. The first three lines of each stanza are exactly the same metrically and structurally, although some of the words change:

    Hear the sledges with the bells
    Silver bells!
    What a world of merriment their melody foretells!

    Hear the mellow wedding bells,
    Golden bells!
    What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!

    Hear the loud alarum bells
    Brazen bells!
    What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!

    Hear the tolling of the bells
    Iron Bells!
    What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!

.......The second stanza is longer that the first, the third longer than the second, and the fourth longer than the third. The third stanza acts as a sort of climax in which the pace is frantic, with some lines long and some short, like the irregular heartbeat and breathing of a person in death throes. The fourth stanza celebrates deathand the new life destined for death, as promised by the marriage referred to in the second stanza. 

Author Information

.......Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless coupleJohn Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. 



The Bells
By Edgar Allan Poe
Published in 1849


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 tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

sledges: Sleighs.
crystalline delight: Sight that gleams pleasingly, like crystals.
Runic: (see above): Mysterious, mystical; involved, complicated, hard to fathom.
tintinnabulation: Small ringing sound; from the Latin words tintinnabulum (small bell) and tintinnare (to jingle, to ring). Use of tintinnabulation follows the use of tinkle (Line 4), suggesting the smallness of the sound made by the sledge bells. It also sets up the use of jingling and tinkling in the last line of the stanza. 

Comment: The mood of Stanza 1 is cheerful and, as the third line suggests, optimistic and hopeful. It is as if a child hears the bells during the Christmas season and expects life to give him wonderful presents. However, pay close attention to Line 5: In the icy air of night. This line suggests a deathly presence (which is cold and dark).


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!
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!

Golden: This word suggests prosperity and promise
balmy: This word suggests spring or summer, the traditional time of the year for weddings. It also suggests the springtime of life.
molten: Past participle of melt, usually describing melted or liquefied metal. Its use here suggests warmth and passion. It also sets up the use of liquid in the eighth line of the stanza.
And all in tune: Notice that this line (7) is the antithesis of Line 8 in the third stanza.
ditty: Short song; short poem intended to be sung.
turtle-dove (turtledove): Dove that coos with affection for its mate.
gloats: Exults, rejoices. 
On . . . moon: Apparently the dove perches on a tree branch crossing in front of the moon, making the dove appear as if it is on the moon. 
euphony: Sound that is harmonious and very pleasing
swinging: This word is associated here only with joy and contentment, for a bell rings on the upswing. However, it foreshadows the "ebbs and flows" and the "sinks and swells" of danger in Stanza 3.

Comment: The mood of Stanza 2 remains cheerful and upbeat. However, balmy air of night (the fourth line of the stanza) suggests the continuing presence of death. Also, the output of the bells has "matured" from the little tinkling and jingling sounds of Stanza 1 to mellow, golden, and chiming sounds of this stanza


Hear the loud alarum bells
Brazen bells!
What a 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.
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!

alarum: Alarm.
Brazen: This word has two meanings: (1) made of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, and (2) bold, harsh, piercing.
Brazen bells: Here begins an extended metaphor in which the poet personifies the bells, making them scream and shriek in fright and plead with the fire to subside. 
turbulency: Turbulence (noise, racket, commotion)
Out . . . tune: Notice that this line (8) is the antithesis of Line 7 in Stanza 2.
expostulation: a pleading in protest; a remonstration.
deaf: The fire is unfeeling and indifferent. It does not hear the pleading of the bells.

Comment: The mood shifts abruptly in this Stanza to terror and despair as fire consumes the joy and exultation of the previous stanzas. Hope remains that the danger will pass for it ebbs as well as flows and sinks as well as swells. Also, the euphony of sounds in the second stanza (Line 12) becomes a cacophony of clamor and clangor in this stanza.


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
They are neither man nor woman-
They are neither brute nor human-
They are Ghouls:
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the paean of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the paean of the bells
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.

paean: Hymn of joy, praise, or thanksgiving. Here the word is used mockingly to signify the glee of the king of the ghouls. 
iron: This metal is noted for its strength and indomitability. In this respect, it is like death: It cannot be conquered. 
monody: Monotonous sound; lament, funeral hymn.
From the rust: Iron tends to rust. 
monotone: Sound that repeats itself again and again remains; repetition of the same tone. 
Ghouls: Demons that open graves and feed on the dead. 

Comment: The final stanza is funereal as the bells toll solemnly and monotonously. The bell ringer in the steeplethe king of the Ghoulstakes sadistic delight in ringing the death knell, which rolls a stone upon the human heart. To him, the sound of the bell is cheerful and joyful..

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