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.

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Beowulf: A Marvellous Story, Magnificently Told.

Beowulf, a centuries-old epic poem, is a marvellous story, magnificently told.

Beowulf is the oldest poem that we have in an English language. It is a medieval Anglo-Saxon epic poem that tells of the adventures of the hero, a great warrior named Beowulf, who crossed the sea from Sweden and helped the Danes fight the monster Grendel. ‘Beowulf’ is based on an early Germanic tale that relates events which would have happened after the fall of the Roman Empire and before these tribes moved into Britain. It celebrates a culture that glorifies strength, courage, and heroic achievements. These stories were told in verse by poet-singers called scops as a popular form of entertainment.

imagesAfter being passed down as an oral tradition for centuries, Beowulf was written down somewhere between the eighth and tenth centuries in Old English, the language that the Anglo-Saxons spoke in Britain. We don’t know who wrote it, or exactly when or where it was written down, or if the characters in the poem really existed. The single manuscript that still exists was written in two different people’s handwriting. The poem could be one traditional tale, or a combination of a number of folk tales into one great story. There was a Swedish king named Hygelac who died in 521AD, so it is possible that some or all of the characters were based on real people.

Old English is very different to modern English, so the poem has been translated into modern English so that we can still read and understand the poem today.

Perhaps the most distinctive poetic device in Old English poetry is the kenning. A kenning is a short, metaphorical term which describes a thing without using its name. In ‘Beowulf’, the king is referred to as a “ring-giver”, while Beowulf himself is called “Higlac’s follower”. My favourite from ‘Beowulf’ is “whale-road” as a description for the sea– isn’t that magnificent? While we are still very fond of metaphor, I think it’s a shame we don’t make more use of the kenning. Old English poetry was also characterised by strong rhythm and frequent alliteration. This would have helped the scops learn and remember the tale as an oral tradition, and added a musical element to the recitation, as well as making the story pleasant to listen to for the audience.

Beowulf_Manuscript

Modern translations follow the convention of making frequent and consistent use of both kennings and alliteration. This adds a wonderful sensory element to reading the story of Beowulf, which even today is a thrilling read. It delivers elements of adventure, history, heroism, and macabre storytelling.

The poem is way too long to include in this post, but you can find Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, as a safe-to-download PDF at Scribd.
(Note: you do not have to subscribe or accept any trial memberships to get this file.)

There is also a wonderful reading of the poem in contemporary English on Youtube.

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Lyrics and Poetry: what’s the difference?

Many people don’t realise where the term “lyrics” came from.

In my first post related to National Poetry Month, I issued this challenge: “Listen carefully to songs on the radio. You might be surprised how many of them are poetry set to music. ”

Many people don’t realise that’s where the term “lyrics” came from.

A lyric poem is one that focuses on the feelings and thoughts of the poet, rather than describing something (an ode) or telling a story (a ballad). These poems were often set to music, especially that of a lyre – this is where the term “lyrics” for the words of a song came from. So when people talk about the lyrics of a song, it’s a throwback to the origins of the love song in popular poetry, centuries ago.

That’s the sort of poetic wordy-nerdy-ness that makes me ridiculously happy.

One of the most famous lyric poems in the English language is Wordsworth’s poem that is commonly, and somewhat affectionately, called Daffodils – even though that’s not actually its title. It gets quoted – and misquoted – a lot in films, TV shows and books.

Daffodils.jpg

It’s a beautiful poem that transports the reader’s vision to the field of daffodils, but also transports their thoughts into the reader’s mind to explore how the flowers made him think and feel.

As with all older poems, there are some words in it that don’t really get used much anymore:

  • Jocund means joyful or cheerful.
  • Gay – in the context of this poem – means happy.
    (To clarify further, daffodils are, like most things in the plant kingdom, completely uninterested in one’s sexuality. I like to think that this is probably why they’re happier than many people.)
  • Pensive means thoughtful.

Now that those tricky words are sorted, you should be able to make perfect sense of this beautiful poem.

‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

If you’d like to hear a magnificent reading of this poem, I suggest you try the recording by English actress Noma Dumazweni.  The reading by Jeremy Irons is quite nice, too.

 

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