Thursday, November 29, 2012

"The Bells" Published 1849

The Bells (1849)

by Edgar Allan Poe

"The Bells" is a heavily onomatopoeic poem by Edgar Allan Poe which was not published until after his death in 1849. It is perhaps best known for the diacopic repetition of the word "bells." The poem has four parts to it; each part becomes darker and darker as the poem progresses from "the jingling and the tinkling" of the bells in part 1 to the "moaning and the groaning" of the bells in part 4.


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.


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!


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!


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.


This poem can be interpreted in many different ways, the most basic of which is simply a reflection of the sounds that bells can make, and the emotions evoked from that sound. For example, "From the bells bells bells bells/Bells bells bells!" brings to mind the clamoring of myriad church bells. Several deeper interpretations exist as well. One is that the poem is a representation of life from the nimbleness of youth to the pain of age. Growing despair is emphasized alongside the growing frenzy in the tone of the poem.[1] Another is the passing of the seasons, from spring to winter. The passing of the seasons is often used as a metaphor for life itself. The poem also suggests a Poe theme of mourning over a lost wife, courted in sledge, married and then killed in a fire as the husband looks on. The tolling of the iron bells reflects the final madness of the grief-stricken husband.

The sounds of the verses, specifically the repetitive "bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells," lie on a narrow line between sense and nonsense, causing a feeling of instability.[2] Poe uses the word "tintinnabulation", which many critics believe is merely an onomatopoeic nonsense term. Poe biographer Hervey Allen suggests the word is based on an ancient bell-based instrument called "tintinabula."[3] The series of "bells" echo the imagined sounds of the various bells, from the silver bells following the klip-klop of the horses, to the "dong, ding-dong" of the swinging golden and iron bells, to screeching "whee-aaah" of the brazen bells. The series are always four, followed by three, always beginning and ending on a stressed syllable. The meter changes to iambic in the lines with repeated "bells," bringing the reader into their rhythm. Most of the poem is a more hurried anapestic (**/) meter.

The bells of which he writes are thought to be those he heard from Fordham University's bell tower, since Poe resided in the same Bronx neighborhood as that university. He also frequently strolled about Fordham's campus conversing with both the students and the Jesuits.

Critical response

"The Bells" is often criticized for being mechanical and forced.[4]

Publication history

Poe is believed to have written "The Bells" in May 1848 and submitted it three times to Sartrain's Union Magazine, a magazine run by John Sartain, until it was finally accepted.[5] He was paid fifteen dollars for his work, though it was not published until after his death in November 1849.

Inspiration for the poem is often granted to Marie Louise Shew (above), a woman who had helped care for Poe's wife Virginia as she lay dying.[5] One day, as Shew was visiting Poe at his cottage in Fordham, New York, Poe needed to write a poem but had no inspiration. Shew allegedly heard ringing bells from afar and playfully suggested to start there, possibly even writing the first line of each stanza.[6]


Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) composed a choral symphony The Bells, Op. 35, based on a Russian adaptation of the poem by Konstantin Balmont. The symphony follows classical sonata form: first movement, slow movement, scherzo, and finale, thus honoring the poem's four sections.[7] (The work is sometimes performed in English, using not Poe's original, but a translation of Balmont's adaptation by Fanny S. Copeland.) The Scottish composer Hugh S. Roberton (1874–1947) published "Hear the Tolling of the Bells" (1909), "The Sledge Bells" (1909), and "Hear the Sledges with the Bells" (1919) based on Poe's poem.[8] Josef Holbrooke composed his "The Bells, Prelude, Op. 50" on Poe's poem and Phil Ochs composed a tune to the poem recorded his album All the News That's Fit to Sing. Eric Woolfson, musical partner to Alan Parsons in the Alan Parsons Project, has written two albums based on the writings of Poe. His second, Poe: More Tales of Mystery and Imagination includes a song entitled "The Bells", for which he set Poe's words to music. This album was also the basis for a musical stage production that was performed in England, Austria, and other European countries.


1.^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York City: Harper Perennial, 1991. ISBN 0060923318 p. 403
2.^ Rosenheim, Shawn James. The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. p. 125. ISBN 9780801853326
3.^ Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 25. ISBN 086576008X
4.^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 1992. p. 223. ISBN 0815410387
5.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. p. 25. ISBN 081604161X
6.^ E. A. Poe Society of Baltimore
8.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. p. 212. ISBN 081604161X

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