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The Bells

Champs d'étoiles

II. About the poem The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe

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,


The Bells was first published in November 1849 in Sartain's Union Magazine of Literature and Art. But the first drafts were made already in May 1848 when Mrs Marie Louise Shew Houghton, a woman who nursed Poe’s wife who was seriously ill in tuberculosis, visited Poe in his cottage in Fordham, New York. “He told her over tea that his mind and feelings were so upset by “the noise of bells tonight [that] I cannot write, I have no subject—I am exhausted.” Jerome J. McGann writes  about the event in his article “The Bells,” Performance, and the Politics of Poetry”, with references to a biography by John H. Ingram. He continue the story with a section from the biography:


The lady took up the pen, and, pretending to mimic his style, wrote, “The Bells, by E. A. Poe;” and then, in pure sportiveness, “The Bells, the little silver Bells,” Poe finishing off the stanza. She then suggested for the next verse, “The heavy iron Bells;” and this Poe also expanded into a stanza. He next copied out the complete poem, and headed it, “By Mrs. M. L. Shew,” remarking that it was her poem; as she had suggested and composed so much of it. . . . He [then] slept for twelve hours.


I came across the poem in the end of the 80’s and remember I was immediately inspired to set music to it. The poem has an immediate and striking musicality with its form, rhythm and sonority in the combinations of words. Michael J. Cummings writes  in a concise introduction and analysis of The Bells that it “is highly musical, in keeping with Poe's belief that a poem should appeal to the ear.” (Cummings) He quotes John Reuben Thomson that in the November 1849 issue of Southern Literary Messenger commented on the musicality of the poem: ”It was the design of the author, as he himself told us, to express in language the exact sounds of bells to the ear.” But this musical quality has also been the case for criticism; many have claimed that it ”tend to eschew rhyming poetry because of its emphasis on form and musicality over substance.” (Ibid.) Poe was at an occasion called “the jingle man” by the American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, a nickname that implied that “Poe wrote such jingly poems” that ”sticks in the memory as one who trades more in musical effects than in significant poetic meaning.” (Elmer 1997)  But this, writes Jerome J. McGann in the introduction to his article is because the “prevalence of ontological and thematic approaches to Poe’s poetry has made understanding and appreciation of its highly innovative procedures very difficult.”(McGann 2014) He means that the way of writing Poe utilizes ”fix our attention on the words and how they sound in our mind’s ear”. It takes us ”away from their semantic value” and since it operates on a phonosemantic plane the reading and interpretation must firstly be performative just ”as one insists that interpreting a piece of music means executing a deliberated performance.” (Ibid.)

I interpreted The Bells as the course of events in life through the sound of bells: the silver bells that sound in a winter’s night was the birth and the beginning of time, the chiming of wedding bells spread happiness and joy in youth, the horrifying screams of the alarm bells terrified at accidents and disasters, and finally, the dull sounds of the funeral bells at the end of life. The four parts of the poems can be seen life's journey, from “a world of merriment” in the silver bells to a “world of solemn thought” of the iron bells.  M. J. Cummings writes that the fundamental theme of the poem is that “death ultimately triumphs over life.” It is the journey towards the inevitable extinction and it is present in every part says Cummings:

”The bells ring joyfully in youth. However, even as they ring, death lurks in the background. For example, in Stanza 1, the narrator hears the tinkling sleigh bells at night (Line 5), meaning the darkness of death (night) is present at the beginning of life. In Stanza 2, the bells ringing in celebration of the wedding resound "through the balmy air of night," meaning the darkness of death is present in young adulthood. In Stanza 3, the bells ring "in the startled ear of night," meaning the darkness of death is present in middle age and later, when fire begins to consume the exuberance of youth. In Stanza 4, the bells ring "in the silence of the night," meaning death has triumphed over life.” (Cummings)

The journey towards the darkness was also something that marked the life of Poe. When he wrote The Bells he was in the very end of his life, he died the following year, only 40 years old. When Mrs Houghton visited him in May 1848 he was in a “debilitated and critical state”—“his vitality was low, he was nearly insane”. He is temporarily better with her care but his psychic recovery was only brief. “Mrs. Houghton’s good intentions were running up against the fatality of Poe, or the myth of Poe, whose poetical world is, like himself, dark and desperate”, writes Jerome J. McGann with reference to the Ingram biography.

It is in the course of time we always are in the journey towards death. The repeated rhythms of the bells are markers that remind us of the passing of time.

”In the first stanza, the bells keep time in a "Runic rhyme," a mysterious rhyme that pleases the ear. Thus, the bells become death's accomplice, marking the passing of time–each second, hour, day, year–with beautiful sounds that continue until life ends and the king of the ghouls tolls the death knell (Stanza 4). The ghouls, demons who feed on the flesh of the dead, are happy to welcome death's victims. Their happiness mockingly echoes the joy expressed in the first stanza. Moreover, the bells that the ghoul tolls also peal with a "Runic rhyme," like the bells in Stanza 1. That characteristic of the bells is the same one that celebrated youth and marriage in Stanzas 1 and 2. From the ghouls' perspective, young people are the future food of the ghouls. And married people produce new youths. All the while, the bells keep time, counting each passing moment.” (Cummings)


The structure of the poem

Cummings describes the structure of the four parts of the poem as follows:

”The poem has four stanzas with end rhyme occurring sometimes in two successive lines, sometimes in three, and sometimes in four. The first three lines of each stanza are exactly the same metrically and structurally, although some of the words change:


Hear the sledges with the bells–

Silver bells!

What a world of merriment their melody foretells!


Hear the mellow wedding bells,

Golden bells!

What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!


Hear the loud alarum bells–

Brazen bells!

What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!

Hear the tolling of the bells–

Iron Bells!

What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!


The second stanza is longer that the first, the third longer than the second, and the fourth longer than the third. The third stanza acts as a sort of climax in which the pace is frantic, with some lines long and some short, like the irregular heartbeat and breathing of a person in death throes. The fourth stanza celebrates death–and the new life destined for death, as promised by the marriage referred to in the second stanza.”


Most important for the “sonority” of the poem is the onomatopoetic constructions Poe works with. Cummings continues: “Onomatopoeia, a figure of speech in which a word imitates a sound, occurs in such words as tinkling, jingling, chiming, shriek, twanging, clanging, and clang.” Another writing technique Poe utilizes is ”alliteration, in which words repeat consonant sounds, occurs in such groups as "bells, bells, bells" and "tinkle, tinkle, tinkle." Other examples of alliteration are the following:


What a world of merriment their melody foretells! (Stanza 1, third line)

What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!  (Stanza 2, third line)

• What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells! (Stanza 3, third line)"



What a liquid ditty floats

To the turtledove 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!




First two pages of Poe's handwritten manuscript for "The Bells", 1848

Additional stanzas of Poe's handwritten manuscript for "The Bells", 1848.

Jerome J. McGann (2014) “The Bells,” Performance, and the Politics of Poetry. The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 2014), pp. 47-58


John H. Ingram, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters, and Opinions, 2 vols. (London: John Hogg, 1880), 2:155.


Cummings Study Guide, retrieved 20 july 2015


Jonathan Elmer ”The Jingle Man: Trauma and the Aesthetic” 1997, Fission and Fusions, Lesley Marx, Loes Nas, and Lara Dunwell (eds) University of the Western Cape Press, p 131-45)