A Favourite Poem: ‘The Bells’ by Edgar Allan Poe

‘The Bells’ is a magnificent poem that is best read aloud.

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‘The Bells’ is a poem that Poe wrote in the final year of his life, as he battled writer’s block that seemed to have developed with his grief for his wife, who died from tuberculosis. It is highly reflective of the way in which he perceived the changes that happen in one’s life – as one gets older, the ringing of the bells is less about happiness and increasingly about grief and fear. From courtship, to marriage, then grief and despair, and finally one’s own death, each stanza grows darker and longer than the one preceding it. The haunting tone of the final stanzas is powerful and chilling, leaving the reader with a strong sense of impending doom and terror.

For me, this poem also reflects how happy times seem to fly past quickly, while periods of darkness and sorrow seem to linger and to obscure the light of those happier memories and thoughts.

It’s a beautiful thing to quietly read and reflect on the poem, but it is possible to overlook some technical elements of the poetry if one reads it silently. Reading the poem aloud adds another dimension altogether to one’s understanding and experience of the poem.

In each stanza, the bells are made of particular metals that reflect the purpose and symbolism of the bells, but which also have different sounds when they ring in that verse of the poem.
The verbs used by Poe to describe the way in which the bells ring have been purposefully chosen to shape the meaning by controlling the speed and temperament of the reading. Short vowel sounds in “jingling” and “tinkling” are replaced with successively longer vowel sounds that slow the reading down and lower the register of the voice, so that the mood becomes more serious and sombre. By the end, the “moaning and the groaning of the bells” is oppressive and fearful, evoking horror and fear in the reader.

I really enjoy the onomatopoeia – words that sound like their meaning – of the poem as it grows progressively louder and heavier, emphasising and compounding the darkening tone and message of the poem. It is the sounds of the bells that tell us what is going on, as much as the other narrative provided by the poem.

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THE BELLS

I
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.

II
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!

III
Hear the loud alarum bells–
Brazen bells!
What 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 clamour and the clangour of the bells!

IV
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 meaning 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,
Rolls
A pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the pæan of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the pæan 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.

Joey'sMapleLeafTatt

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