The Bells: Edgar Allan Poe
Assessment of the Poem: Some critics regard the poem as masterly; other critics regard it as shallow and sing-song. The latter critics–including many 20th and 21st Century poets–tend to eschew rhyming poetry because of its emphasis on form and musicality over substance. It is true that the “The Bells” is highly musical, in keeping with Poe’s belief that a poem should appeal to the ear. The Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote a symphony based on the poem. It contains four movements in imitation of the four stanzas of “The Bells,” as translated into Russian. Yes, the poem is musical.
However, it is not true that it lacks substance, as the analysis on this page attempts to demonstrate. *Theme: Death ultimately triumphs over life (or, life is a journey toward death). 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. *The Bells as Death’s Accomplice: 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. Onomatopoeia and Alliteration: Onomatopoeia and alliteration occur throughout the poem, helping to support the musicality of the poem. 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. 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) *Irony: The third line of Stanza 1 (What a world of merriment their melody foretells! ) and the third line of Stanza 2 (What a world of happiness their harmony foretells! ) are correct in their predictions.
Ironically, however, it is the king of the ghouls who fulfills the predictions. Stanza 4 says “. . . . . .
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- Notes: The mood of Stanza 1 is cheerful and, as the third line suggests, optimistic and hopeful. It is as if a child hears the bells during the Christmas season and expects life to give him wonderful presents. However, pay close attention to Line 5: In the icy air of night. This line suggests a deathly presence (which is cold and dark). The mood of Stanza 2 remains cheerful and upbeat. However, balmy air of night (the fourth line of the stanza) suggests the continuing presence of death. Also, the output of the bells has “matured” from the little tinkling and jingling sounds of Stanza 1 to mellow, golden, and chiming sounds of this stanza.
The mood shifts abruptly in this Stanza to terror and despair as fire consumes the joy and exultation of the previous stanzas. Hope remains that the danger will pass for it ebbs as well as flows and sinks as well as swells. Also, the euphony of sounds in the second stanza (Line 12) becomes a cacophony of clamor and clangor in this stanza. The final stanza is funereal as the bells toll solemnly and monotonously. The bell ringer in the steeple–the king of the Ghouls–takes sadistic delight in ringing the death knell, which rolls a stone upon the human heart. To him, the sound of the bell is cheerful and joyful..