Text: Paul O. Williams, “A Reading of Poe’s ‘The Bells ’,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1968, vol. I, no. 2, 1:24-25


[page 24, column 2:]

A Reading of Poe’s “The Bells”

Principia College

Critics of Poe’s “The Bells” generally do not have much to say about its literal meaning. Richard Wilbur, for instance, sets aside “The Bells” as “altogether a tour de force” (1). F. O. Matthiessen dismisses “The Bells” in one sentence as “a case of onomatopoeia pushed to a point where it would hardly be possible or desirable to go again” (2). Edward H. Davidson, in a note to the poem which is typical of that of most critics, writes: “It has been rightly praised for its experimental and effective onomatopoeia; its theme is probably nothing more profound than the four ages of man” (3). A reading of the poem will reveal that this description of its theme is extremely vague. Although the poem seems to discourage exegesis because it conveys its meaning as much by the resources of music as by those of language (4), more things can, nevertheless, be said about its literal meaning than have been. In its final version, the poem enforces the familiar Poe theme, even moral, that discord and death alone are triumphant.

The sequence of time references in the poem is significant for this theme. The first two stanzas reveal scenes of sleigh riding and marriage which seem to bring their merriment and happiness into the present, but the third line in each of these stanzas reads that a world of merriment and a world of happiness is foretold. In the third stanza, however, line three brings the terror of the alarm bells into the present world and time. The despair and horror is immediate, created by a present fire leaping with

. . . a resolute endeavor

Now — now to sit, or never

By the side of the pale-faced moon.

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The time reference of stanza four also emphasizes the present world and time — and the presence of death in it. Line three here reads: “What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!” Yet, in spite of the solemn thought of the mourners, this stanza also contains the poem’s only merriment actually in the present: the swelling of the “merry bosom” of the king of the Ghouls as he dances in time with the tolling bells. Happiness, too, appears in this stanza, in line 107. Hence the merriment and happiness foretold in stanzas one and two are fullfilled in the poem as that of the king of the Ghouls and his followers. May not the poem be said to state, therefore, that the existence of life foretells the triumph of death, which undercuts mankind’s moments of purest apparent joy?

This ironic theme is intensified in several ways. First, all four scenes occur at night, which is, of course, figuratively associated with the reign of darkness in human affairs. The silver bells of stanza one tinkle “In the icy air of night.” Stars light the scene, seeming to twinkle with “A crystalline delight.” Whereas the sound of this supports the supposed light merriment of the scene, the connotation of the imagery is cold and hard. The night of stanza two is balmy, lit by the moon. The euphonious sound of this stanza “dwells/ On the Future,” which turns out to be unpleasant. The night of stanza three is lit by fire, which leaps up in an endeavor to reach the “pale-faced moon,” the light of stanza two, which is now far off and slight in comparison. The night of stanza four apparently has no light at all but is dominated by the dinning crescendo of the iron bells of death alone.

In addition, the comparative length of the stanzas, which are 14, 22, 33, and 44 lines, throws the emphasis of the poem on its discordant aspect, as does the fact that the brass and iron bells are described in terms so much more powerful than the sleigh and wedding bells. And the sound of the iron bells is three times called a paean, a song of triumph, which in the poem could only be sung in praise of death. The “Runic rhyme” of stanza one reappears twice in the final stanza, and is described as “happy,” as though its meaning is quite clear to the dancing figures of death.

While it may be true that the chief interest in “The Bells” today is in its metrical experimentalism, the central theme in it, enforcing the impression of the triumph of death throughout, is contained in the literal thematic statement of the poem as well as in its form and sound patterns.



(1)  In his introduction to the Dell Laurel edition of Poe’s poems (New York, 1959), p. 37.

(2)  Literary History of the United States (New York, 1948), I, 339.

(3)  Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Boston, 1956), p. 498.

(4)  When the poem is not discussed in terms of its origin (such as Mrs. Shew’s influence, or Poe’s alleged aversion to bell-ringing), or in terms of its various versions, or in terms of its relationship to other “bell poetry” of the time, it is discussed as a pattern of sounds. The most stimulating of such discussions is A. E. DuBois ’ “The Jazz Bells of Poe,” College English, II (December, 1940), 230-244. DuBois discusses the poem as a dramatic song which, anticipating Vachel Lindsay and some of the accomplishments of jazz, is organically organized and prophetic of twentieth-century musical and poetic primitivism.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]