The Bells, by Edgar Allen Poe

Poe goes through the entire range of human emotion in this poem. One wonders if the last stanza might not have been influenced by John Donne's Meditation XVII. We might note a distant peal from Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls".

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.

[Poe is a master of the use of rhythm and rhyme to evoke sound and mood. Above we can almost hear the tinkling. Even longer words such as crystalline and tintinnabulation seem light and airy. Merriam-Webster actually defines tintinnabulation as the tinkling sound of bells. As we go through this poem notice how the tone becomes deeper and more somber until the end comes to a dead stop.]

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-goldennotes,
And an 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!

[Here again light and happy notes. However, a slight air of melancholy seems to be drifting into the poem. Should we be surprised to hear this in a poem by the master of horror himself? No. But still the optimism remains.]

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!

[The bells are always a signal for something. The little bells might be the jingle of horse bells on a swiftly moving sleigh in winter or someone entering a small shop to buy some trifle. The wedding bells speak of the union of two people. Life moving forward. Now, we see the stanzas of the poem get longer. This one is dedicated to warnings and the clamor of calamity. In this case fire. But it could be any loud alarum, pirate raiders, escaped prisoners! The bells talk to us. The signal they send fills us with feeling because we know that they are loaded with meaning. Is it a Pavlovian response?]

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.

[Finally we have the bells that speak of death. They are almost personified, but not quite. Instead, we have ghouls giving voice through the bells. And these bitter creatures actually enjoy not just the sound of the bells, but the effect they know the sound has on humans.]

Poe was indeed a master who crafted poetry to convey both mood and meaning. He lived and worked during the European/American Romantic Period. He was influenced by as well as influenced the other writers of the time. Poe was both critic and artist. When we read the easy flow of the words, we realize the supreme effort that went into his creation. It is only the masters who make their work look easy.

< Crystals and Pliny the Elder | Spring, by William Shakespeare >

Interesting Fact:

Edgar Allen Poe was an adopted child. He was in the army at one time and served in South Carolina (long before the American Civil War). The word "Bells" is used 62 times in this poem.

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