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The Bells -- Edgar Allan Poe

(Poem #101) The Bells
  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 gust of euphony voluminously wells!
  How it swells!
  How it dwells
  On the Future!   how it tells
  Of 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 of 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 a 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, 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.
-- Edgar Allan Poe
Seldom have I seen form and content so well integrated as in Poe's 'Bells'.
The poem needs very little explanation, but it's interesting[1] to see how it
does what it does, and since it exemplifies a lot of the things I like about
Poe, and indeed about poetry in general, I thought it'd be a nice idea to
examine it in some detail.

The repetition of the word 'bells' is the most immediately obvious 'effect'.
Along with the long cascades of mostly masculine rhymes[2], and the
pervasive alliteration, it sets up the basic structure of the poem; the
background beat if you like, or the central melody around which more complex
themes are woven. The other basic effect is provided by the sounds of the
words themselves. Apart from the deliberately onomatopoeic words like
'tintinabulation', the poem abounds with sonorants[3], and pure vowels (as
opposed to diphthongs) that lend it a bell-like clarity and resonance.

After this, the poem separates into verses, the form of each verse being
shaped by its underlying theme. Thus, the first verse has short vowels and
precise sounds, mimicking the 'sledges with the bells-- silver bells'. The
second verse has a more mellow sound, with the longer, deeper 'o' and the
softer 'e' replacing 'i' as the dominant vowel, and the next two verses
likewise evoking dissonance (shorter syllables, more hurried lines, harsher
consonants) and an almost Hardyish sense of time and death (heavy
repetition, far less vibrant sounds). Of course, these aren't standalone
effects, but rather both rely on and reinforce the actual content of the

And finally, the metronomic effect is broken by a number of interesting
devices, including unexpectedly irregular line lengths, missing syllables,
implied rests, an irregular rhyme scheme, the occasional feminine rhyme and
at least one broken rhyme ('ghouls' in the third verse), all of which act as
a sort of counterpoint to the basic rhythm.

[1] Especially given Poe's views on the crafting of poetry (see 'The
Philosophy of Composition',
<[broken link]>)
[2] Masculine rhymes are those that rhyme on the last syllable only, as
opposed to feminine (last two syllables) and triple rhymes.
[3] In phonetics, any of the nasal, liquid, and glide consonants that are
marked by a continuing resonant sound. Sonorants have more acoustic energy
than other consonants. In English the sonorants are y, w, l, r, m, n, and


Biography etc:

See the notes accompanying 'The Raven', poem #85

54 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

baalsr said...

What is the theme of the bells? I know that each segment ahs a specific theme........but what was the overall theme? I need this ASAP>>>>>>>please can you help

Cathy McMullen said...

you should include more information about theme, imagery, metaphor and
other devices, not just ryhme and rhythm!!!

Steve Emmett-Mattox said...

excellent poem.
in line 26, it should read "gush of euphony" not "gust of euphony"


Tyrillsbaby113 said...

why does poe constantly repeat the word "bells" in the poem??
What effect was he trying to produce?

DKK DKKK said...

Has anyone else noticed that he repeats vowel sounds from each bell's material in its corresponding stanza? such as how he repeats the i sound (as in night) and the o sound (as in monodony) in the iron bells, or how he repeats the soft e and deep o sound found in golden in the golden bell's stanza? (same for silver and brazen).... or am i just a crazy person? :P


Why does Poe repeat words like bell and others? What do the bells suggest?
Are there any metaphors or personification in this poem?? If so,which are they?


Life and death. You must be young. Up until the 1980's the world kept time
by the bells that tolled hour after hour. When a persons life was over and
that person was on their way to be buried the church tolled the final bell.


Repeating the word bells gives the effect of time ticking by.

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And finally, the metronomic effect is broken by a number of interesting
devices, including unexpectedly irregular line lengths, missing syllables,
implied rests, an irregular rhyme scheme, the occasional feminine rhyme and
at least one broken rhyme ('ghouls' in the third verse), all of which act as
a sort of counterpoint to the basic rhythm.

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