The Bells

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The Bells

Edgar Allan Poe 1849

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

Edgar Allan Poe worked on “The Bells” from the summer of 1848 to the autumn of 1849. Published posthumously in November of 1849, a little more than a month after Poe’s death, it first appeared in the journal Sartain’s Union to much critical acclaim, and was later published in the 1850 collection The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this poem has become one of America’s best examples of onomatopoeic effect, or use of words that recall the sound of what they describe. Through auditory and visual images, the poem describes the sound, function, and effect of four types of bells: sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells, and funeral bells, all used in the mid-nineteenth century to get the attention of community members. In the common occurrence of their ringing, Poe finds a metaphor for the progression of the common man from the carefree times of youth (as in the merry sound of sleigh bells), to the serious commitment of marriage, to critical situations of emergencies in one’s mature life, and finally to the conclusion of death. This natural progression, however, receives a dramatic emphasis because the descriptions become more and more emotionally charged.

Author Biography

Poe was born in Boston in 1809, the son of Elizabeth Arnold Poe and David Poe, both minor professional actors. Both his parents died before he

was three years old, and he was subsequently raised in the home of Frances Keeling Valentine Allan and her husband John Allan, a prosperous exporter from Richmond, Virginia. As a youth, Poe attended the finest academies in Richmond, his step-father overseeing his education, and he entered the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in 1825. He distinguished himself academically at the University but was forced to leave due to inadequate financial support from his step-father. Poe returned to Richmond in 1827 but soon left for Boston. There he enlisted in the army and published his first collection of poetry, Tamerlane, and Other Poems. Poe was discharged from the army in 1829, the same year he published a second volume of verse. Neither of his first two collections attracted much attention. After briefly attending West Point, Poe went to New York City and soon after to Baltimore. He married his cousin Virginia Clemm in 1836 after receiving an editorship at The Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. Poe thereafter received a degree of recognition, not only for his poetry and fiction, but as an exceptional literary critic. He also occasionally achieved popular success, especially following the publication of his poem “The Raven.”

Poe’s wife Virginia died from tuberculosis in 1847. After a period in which he was involved in various romantic affairs, Poe planned to remarry, but in late September, 1849 he arrived in Baltimore for reasons unknown. In early October he was discovered nearly unconscious; he died on October 7, never regaining sufficient consciousness to relate the details of the final days of his life. Since his death Poe’s work has been variously assessed, with critics disagreeing on its value. Today, however, Poe is acknowledged as a major literary figure, a master of Gothic atmosphere and interior monologue. His poems and stories have influenced the literary schools of symbolism and surrealism as well as the popular genres of detective and horror fiction.

Poem Text


  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.


  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 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!


  Hear the loud alarum bells—
  Brazen bells!
What a 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
  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 wrangling,
  How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the
  Of the bells,—
  Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
  Bells, bells, bells—
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!


  Hear the tolling of the bells—
  Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody
  In the silence of the night,
  How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace 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,
   A paean from the bells!
    And 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—
   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.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-3

In these opening lines, Poe introduces the first of the four bells, the silver sleigh bells. These sleigh bells are associated with a happy mood. The description of the bells as “silver” supplies a visual image and also an association with the idea of value. Alliteration of w in “what” and “world” and of m in “merriment” and “melody” add to the pleasing sound of these first lines.

Lines 4-8

The use of the word “tinkle” is the first occurrence of onomatopoeia, or a word that sounds like what it means. In this case it reproduces the sound of these light sleigh bells. The setting of nighttime allows for a parallel between the sound of the bells and the twinkling of the stars above and for the pleasing effect of the double rhymes, “tinkle,” “oversprinkle,” and “twinkle.” In these rhymes, examples of assonance and alliteration respectively occur in the short vowel sound of i and the consonant sound of k. These sounds continue in the word “crystalline,” which also provides a very sharp image for the stars. Similarly, the rhyming of “night” with “delight” provides a repetition of the long vowel sound of i, the beginning of assonance that continues in the words “icy,” “time,” and “rhyme” in this first stanza.

Lines 9-11

Repetition of the word “time,” which receives stress every time it is used here, adds excitement to the rhythm. Use of the long vowel sound i is an example of assonance since it appears in the words, “night,” “delight,” “icy,” “time,” and “rhyme” in this first stanza. The repetition of the consonant sound t throughout the stanza, but mostly here in “time” and “tintinnabulation,” provides examples of alliteration. “Tintinnabulation” also provides the second example of onomatopoeia in the poem, again a description of the sound made by the light, happy sleigh bells. Also note the phrase “a sort of runic rhyme,” which suggests a parallel between the sound of the bells and poetry itself.

Lines 12-14

Here is the first of seven times that the poem repeats the word “bells” in succession. This repetition makes the poem memorable and as the intensity of the repetition increases, the poem becomes increasingly exciting to hear. The words “jingling” and “tinkling” are two more examples of onomatopoeia.

Lines 15-17

In the beginning of this second stanza, Poe introduces his second topic, the golden wedding bells. Once again by naming the metal in which the bells are cast, Poe provides a visual image and an association with a thing of value, since “golden” carries with it a strong connotation of wealth. The lines begin and end with the same phrases as those of the first stanza, to produce a parallel construction and comforting effect. In this stanza, alliteration of the sound of h produces a breathless feeling of excitement, an appropriate association to make with a wedding.

Lines 18-19

Once again the setting is that of night; in this stanza it is not the icy night of the sleigh bells but a night that is “balmy,” or mild and soothing. Also, as in the first stanza, “night” rhymes with “delight.” This time though, the rhymes occur at the end of consecutive lines without any other end-rhymes interposed. The closeness of the rhymes to each other quickens the pace of the poem.

Lines 20-24

These lines describe the sound of the golden bells and a creature who hears them. Assonance of the long vowel o in “molten-golden notes,” “floats,” and “oh” suggests the rich intonation of a golden bell ringing. The listener is a “turtledove,” a bird noted for its pleasant cooing sound and often used as an image of romantic love. “Turtledove” could also be read as a rather mushy term of affection for an actual woman. And rather than gazing at the moon, she “gloats.” While the use of this word allows for the continuation of the rhyme with “notes” and “floats,” it also adds to the presentation of this listener as overly sentimental. These suggestions of heightened emotion, associated with golden, wedding bells, produce a feeling of luxuriance.

Lines 25-35

These lines continue to develop the luxuriance of the golden, wedding bells. The phrase “sounding cells” creates an image of largeness; a “cell” is a room. The word “gush” implies the pouring forth of a large amount of something, and “voluminously wells” concurs with this suggestion, as does the words “swells.” “Wells” and “swells” bring the meaning of gathering up in quantity, and “dwells” brings the meaning of lingering in time. The word “euphony” provides an auditory image that is reinforced by the pleasant sound of ten end rhymes in eleven lines: “cells,” “wells,” “swells,” “dwells,” “tells,” “impels,” and “bells” three times. The internal repetition of “bells” seven more times in lines 32 to 34 adds to this pleasing effect. The one line of this section that does not contain this rhyme, line 31, has its own rhyme occurring between an internal word, “swinging,” and the last word, “ringing.” The existence of so many rhymes keeps the pace lively. In lines 27 and 28, the bells are given the magical power to foretell a future of “rapture” or bliss for this wedding party. As in the first stanza, where the bells were said to create a “runic rhyme,” here in the last line of this second stanza the bells are “rhyming,” making another association between the poem itself or the act of writing poetry and the ringing sound of bells. The stanza concludes with the onomatopoeic “chiming” of the bells.

Lines 36-38

In these opening lines of stanza three, Poe introduces his third topic, the “brazen,” or brass-colored, alarm bells. The word “brazen” suggests loud, contemptuous boldness, and so these bells are immediately associated with an angry mood. Alliteration of t in “tale,” “terror,” “turbulency,” and “tells” adds a tense quality to the sound of these lines. The words “alarum,” “terror” and “turbulency” carry with them strong negative connotations.

Lines 39-43

A nighttime setting appears again, this time, however, a night of fear and emergency. Personification exists in the phrase “startled ear of night,” presenting the evening as a sleeping person, woken suddenly by this terrible sound of alarm. The assonance of long vowel e in “ear,” “scream,” “speak,” and “shriek” occurring throughout the stanza creates a squealing sound and a sense of urgency. The words “startled,” “scream,” “affright,” “horrified,” and “shriek” all have negative denotations and connotations. Repetition of “shriek” creates the sense that the situation is uncontrollable. Note finally that these bells are appropriately ringing “out of tune.”

Lines 44-50

These lines describe the frenzy of a destructive fire and the desperate ringing of the fire alarm bells. Though the bells are “clamorous” and make a “mad expostulation,” the fire does not respond, remaining “deaf,” “frantic,” and “resolute” while it leaps “higher, higher, higher.” The repetition here creates the sense that the fire is uncontrollable. Personification occurs when the fire is described as having the “desire” to climb so high that it can “sit” next to “the pale-faced moon.” Presumably the moon appears “pale” in comparison to the blazing fire. The words, “fire,” “higher,” “desire,” and “side,” provide assonance of long vowel i to create a disquieting sound and a sense of urgency.

Lines 51-56

These lines describe the alarm bells’ sounds and identify their ability to announce danger. Repetition of “bells” acts as a refrain that now creates a sense of urgency. Once again, alliteration of “t” in “tale,” “terror,” “tells” and “palpitating” adds tension to the sound of these lines. The words, “clang,” “clash,” and “roar” serve as onomatopoeic devices to create the discordant sound of these bells. The overall effect of the bells on the setting is to produce fear, as suggested in the metaphor of the “horror” poured onto “the bosom of the palpitating air.” The atmosphere has been personified as a woman who is shaking with fear while hearing the bells.

Lines 57-69

These lines indicate that the bells communicate the intensity of the danger to the community. The phrases “ebbs and flows” and “sinks and swells” suggest that changes in the loudness and rate of the alarm bells match up to the severity of the emergency situation. An example of

Media Adaptations

  • A compact disc titled Closed on Account of Rabies: Poems and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, produced by Hal Willner, is available from Mouth Almighty Records. Various artists, including Christopher Walken, Gabriel Byrne, Deborah Harry, and Iggy Pop, read selections of Poe’s work.
  • The Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe (1996) is available on audio cassette from Dove Audio.
  • The Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe is available on compact disc from Audiobooks.

synecdoche, or a metaphor where a part symbolizes the whole, occurs when the word “ear” is used to represent the people who hear the alarm. Again, onomatopoeia creates the discordant sound of the bells, this time in the words “twanging,” “clanging,” “jangling,” and “wrangling.” Strong negative meanings emerge from the words “anger,” “clamor,” and “clangor.” As in the preceding sections, the word “bells” is repeated; this time the repetition has grown to seven consecutive “bells,” suggesting the dramatic urgency of the situation.

Lines 70-72

In the opening lines of this final stanza, Poe introduces the last type of bells, the iron steeple bells. “Iron” creates an image of coarse, crude metal, and so these bells may be associated with primitive, basic elements of life and death. They are said to produce “solemn thought” and ring only in “monody,” a type of dirge, thus connecting them to a funeral.

Lines 73-78

The descriptions in this section produce a tone of fear, of groaning and shivering in the night. In the phrase “rust within their throats” a personification of the bells presents them as having a hoarse, raspy voice. Since iron rusts and sound comes from one’s throat, this personification describes these bells very well.

Lines 79-88

These lines identify the ringers of these iron bells as demonic creatures or ghoulish semi-persons. These evil beings take pleasure in ringing the funeral knell, as represented by the phrase, “glory in so rolling / on the human heart a stone.” Repetition of the word “tolling,” besides supplying onomatopoeia, also has the effect of emphasizing the strain upon the hearer caused by this iron bell taking its “toll” on those who hear it.

Lines 89-113

This final section of the poem presents the image of the king of the ghouls, who joyously rings the iron funeral bells, presumably in anticipation of taking possession of the deceased. Several words express his joy: “paean,” “merry bosom,” “he dances, and he yells,” and “happy runic rhyme.” Note that the line “in a sort of runic rhyme” from the first stanza is twice repeated here, serving to reinforce the parallel between the sound of the bells and poetry and to connect the entire poem. Repetitions in these lines produce steady rhythms, but they have also been carefully chosen to strengthen the structure or theme of the poem. In the case of “rolls,” repeated four times, a structural link develops between these lines and the image above of the stone “rolling” over the “human heart.” Through the repetition of the word “time,” which appears in two lines a total of six times, the theme of life and death as subjects of time emerges. The iron bells produce a variety of sounds in these last lines: “a paean,” a “throbbing” sound, “sobbing,” “rolling,” “tolling,” “moaning,” and “groaning.” In addition, repetition of the word “bells” takes on a feverish pitch as the poem concludes. It seems that the bells themselves, and not only those who hear them in the night, are victims answering to the demands of the ghoulish ringers.


Language and Meaning

Readers are often suspicious of the intellectual content of poems such as “The Bells” that have a flowing rhythm and a large number of snugly fit rhymes. There is good reason for suspicion: it makes sense that the poet who chooses words for their sound is not doing all that can be done to assemble the words that are the most meaningful. From earliest childhood, we are raised reciting nursery rhymes such as “Hickory dickory dock, three mice ran up the clock,” and “Jack and Jill ran up the hill.” The musical qualities of these rhymes can be appreciated with no sense of what they mean, which tells us that meaning can be unrelated to rhythm and rhyme. Too often, though, readers will conclude that a clever or pretty poem is hollow, as if there is an equation that shrinks the meaning when the musical quality expands. Poe’s poetic works have often been dismissed by serious critics because they resemble the pointless confectioneries that lightweight poets spew forth.

In “The Bells,” Poe has chosen words that have such a close relationship between sound and meaning that neither is sacrificed. The term onomatopoeia is used to describe words that use their sound to suggest what they are describing: “buzz,” for instance, resembles a fly’s sound, while “splat” reminds us of the sound of the fly being crushed. Most of the words Poe chose for this poem work onomatopoeically. In the first stanza, for example, “crystalline” and “tintinnabulation” not only have the proper meaning, but their sound also carries the lighthearted sense of sleigh bells, just as “monody” and “tolling” carry the sound of gloom in stanza four. Throughout the poem, the repetition of the single-syllable word “bells” brings the monotone of the bells’ actual sound to mind. Though poems that pay too much attention to the sounds of their words are often merely clever without insight, in this case the link between the words’ sounds and their meanings is appropriate, because it resembles the way that sound and meaning relate in ringing bells.


As is often the case with Poe’s writings, readers must wonder whether the various moods created by the different bells are psychological or supernatural. There is, of course, a logical reason for why silver bells would evoke merriment; golden bells harmony; brazen bells terror; and iron bells solemn thought. Each has a history of social use, and we all associate their use with the happy and sad occasions during which we have heard them in the past. It is generally accepted that these bells are well matched to their functions; we would not toll heavy iron bells to celebrate a wedding any more than silver bells would be fitting for a funeral. But this poem implies that the feelings these tones stir in us are not just responses to our past experiences, and it attributes to the bells themselves the power—even the desire—to control our responses. This personification becomes more obvious as the poem progresses, so that the bells seem to be more and more willful, as the poem becomes darker and more somber. In the first stanza the bells are “foretelling,” in the second they are “ringing out delight,” in the third they are “screaming their fright,” and finally, in the end, the bells control the king like a puppet: “He dances and he yells” to their rhythm. By this point, there can be little doubt in the reader’s mind that the poem is telling us that the bells have supernatural control over people’s thoughts that extend beyond memories of past situations.

Cycle of Life

The most obvious organizing principle of this poem is its movement from joy to sorrow as the bells reflect these various emotions: silver bells convey “a world of merriment”; golden bells play a tune that “tells / of the rapture that impels”; brazen bells tell a tale of terror and despair; and iron bells turn people to ghouls with “the melancholy menace of their tone.” Less obvious, but still present, is the author’s implication that the arrangement of these bells reflects the chronology of life, hinting that human lives generally follow the progression of joy, hope, fear and sorrow. In only the broadest sense is this true. Childhood can reasonably be seen as a time of innocent play, as indicated by the sleigh bells. Young adulthood, the time when people take control of their lives, is, as the poem tells us, a time for dwelling on the future—a time of happiness foretold. Middle age is when the realization of mortality makes us aware of the countless disasters waiting to happen around us. And people in old age can tend to become solemn and melancholy, as the vague fear of death turns into a very real fact, through the deaths of friends and acquaintances. The problem with the poem’s implying that this is the emotional structure that most lives take is that it relies too heavily on overgeneralization. In theory, for instance, it makes sense to call childhood a time of play and middle age a time of alarm, but children are frequently alarmed: What about the people who experience disaster or hardship in youth? How does the poem account for those who remain merry throughout their lives? There are so many exceptions to the patterns that Poe has sketched for us here that the poem, though accurate in matching sounds to moods, is not very helpful for teaching us about life.

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a nonpoetic description of exactly what is happening in the fourth stanza. Explain the characters involved and their motivations.
  • In the modern world, many functions that formerly used bells—such as door chimes, fire alarms, and phone ringers—have been replaced by electrical tones. Do you think that these tones can have the same emotional impact that Poe associates with bells? Have the engineers who designed them removed the emotional element? Write a brief essay explaining how technology has or has not changed the effect that Poe describes here.
  • Explain the speaker’s obsession with bells. Did he have a bad experience? Is he hypnotized by their sound? Do you think this person is obsessed to the point of being dangerous?


“The Bells” consists of four stanzas of varying lengths that follow no particular rhyme scheme. Most notably, the poem uses repetition of the word “bells,” and of words that describe the sound of bells, to create a ringing rhythm. Along with repetition, rhymes, alliteration and assonance, which are the repetition of consonant and vowel sounds, and onomatopoeia reproduce the sound of the ringing bells. The poem uses a trochaic meter of pairs of stressed and unstressed syllables to create the steady high/low rhythm of ringing, but Poe varies this rhythm, especially when he inserts many extra stressed syllables that may be thought of as spondaic feet, or pairs of stressed syllables. These extra syllables occur in the repeated words to add a sense of excitement. For example, consider the following line containing trochees:

To the / tin tin / nab u / la tion / that so / mu si /

cal ly / wells . . .

This line contains all trochaic feet, with an extra stressed syllable at the end on “wells”; the following line, however, begins with a trochee and continues with all accented syllables that can be scanned as spondees:

From the / bells, bells, / bells, / bells

In addition to repetition and rhythm variation, a notable characteristic of the poem’s construction is that its stanzas increase in length and complexity as the poem develops: the first stanza has only fourteen lines, the second has twenty-one lines, the third has thirty-four lines, and the last stanza continues for forty-four lines. This increasing stanza length parallels the increasing seriousness of the types of bells being described, from the joyously simple sleigh bells to the profoundly frightening funeral bells. In this manner, the poem produces an overall climax with a tragic ending, as is the case in much of Poe’s poetry.

Historical Context

Poe’s writings are generally seen as clearly reflecting the fact that he lived and worked in the era we now call the Age of Romanticism, which started in the late 1700s and dominated social and artistic thought throughout much of the following century. As with most things concerning this author, though, his greatest achievements are not strongly influenced by the situation around him, but are mostly the results of his own unique theories. “The Bells,” for example, does show some traits that we associate with Romanticism, but it also has a unique approach that identifies it more clearly as a product of the man than of his times. Looking forward in history, we can see how Poe’s interest in the mystical nature of objects, so obvious in “The Bells,” influenced those who came after him, especially the followers of the French Symbolist movement of the late 1800s.

Romanticism was a response to the Age of Enlightenment. This was a period when the prevailing feeling around the world, especially in Europe (England, Germany, and France) was that rational thought could be used to overcome all of mankind’s problems. The Enlightenment was a natural result of the optimism generated in the seventeenth century, as scientific discoveries and the exploration of unfamiliar civilizations made Europeans aware of possibilities they had not dared to dream of before. Events as diverse as Newton’s theory of universal gravity in 1665 and the founding of Jamestown, the first English colony in North America, in 1607 led to the enthusiasm during the Enlightenment for finding newer, better ways to address old problems. In one sense, the Enlightenment, with its interest in exploring uncharted territory, paved the way for the sort of innovative artist Poe was; on the other hand, the Age of Enlightenment was a bit too narrowly focused on the things of the physical world for Poe, whose interests expanded beyond the measurable world and into the areas of emotion and the supernatural. His 1831 poem, “To Science,” points out the inability of scientific inquiry to address the concerns and fears that motivate humans.

Late in the eighteenth century, the drive to reach perfection in government and social affairs led to a general recognition of the importance of individuals, which, in turn, led to the rejection of powerful centralized governments. French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1718-1778) was particularly influential in refining the priorities of the Enlightenment by pointing out that feelings and emotions are just as important to human life as reason. Many thinkers of the time followed Rousseau in calling for the rights of individuals being put ahead of the rules of cold, rational, bureaucratic systems. The Enlightenment was giving way to the Romantic Age. Politically, Romanticism took over Western Civilization with the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789, during which poor, common people stood up and fought for liberty against the governments that had controlled them for centuries. In literature, Romanticism is considered to have been directly expressed first in William Wordsworth’s introduction to the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems by Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Romantic literature emphasized feeling over intellect, and therefore placed great importance on the subjective, personal experiences of the author. Nature plays a central role in Romantic literature: while writers of the Enlightenment had studied nature to discover the laws that control it, Romantic writers experienced nature and reported on the feelings that resulted. Poe was one of the most subjective writers to have ever lived. There is seldom a view of the world we all know from experience in his works, but instead the world in his works operates by strange rules, filtered through the author’s state of mind. In his short stories, for example, the world that the reader experiences will often reflect the guilt or grief that the main character feels, and Poe’s poems are even less grounded in objective reality. Unlike other Romantic poets, though, Poe put a great emphasis on the sound or “music” of the words that he used to capture his ideas. And

Compare & Contrast

  • 1849: More than 77,000 people race to California after gold is discovered in the San Francisco area. Before then, the United States had only expanded to the Mississippi River: the gold prospectors, known as “Forty-niners,” traveled the western half of the continent by foot or sailed beneath South America to reach California. The next year California became the 31st state, extending the United States from the East to West coasts.

    1912: Arizona was admitted to the Union as the forty-eighth state, the last one of the continental states to be added.

    1959: Alaska and Hawaii were added as the forty-ninth and fiftieth states. They are the only states that do not border other states.

    Today: With most of the world’s land and sea territories claimed, exploration and expansion takes place in outer space.

  • 1849: A U.S. patent was awarded for the first safety pin.

    1893: A patent was issued to Ernest Judson for a “clasp locker” that was the prototype of the zipper; the name “zipper” was copyrighted in 1926.

    1948: Swiss inventor Georges de Mestral invented Velcro. The product was patented in 1955.

    1993: The pentium computer chip is invented.

  • 1849: Some of the greatest and most recognizable names in American Literature were active at this time, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

    Today: With the communications technology that has made all places in the world familiar, it is unlikely that any group of authors could be so strongly identified with their nation’s history as those listed.

  • 1849: The Potato Famine in Ireland, which began in 1845, forced hundreds of thousands of Irish people to emigrate to America, continuing the largest migration in the world’s history.

    1910: The U.S. immigration rate hit an all-time high, with ten percent of Americans having been born in other countries.

    Today: Mexico sends the most immigrants to the United States, nearly three times the amount of the next nation: it is followed by the Asian countries of Philippines, China, Korea, and Vietnam.

unlike other writers of the Romantic movement, especially the New England Transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Poe did not use the objects of the physical world as a way of knowing God. To him, objects each had a more individual, sometimes sinister, meaning.

American literature has tended to follow in the tradition of Transcendentalism, using poetry as a tool for understanding, rather than valuing it for its own worth. Like Emerson, who once called Poe “the Jingle Man,” many scholars consider Poe a popular but not important figure—or at best more important for his fiction than his poetry. Poe’s influence is much clearer in French literature, where the symbolist movement that flourished from 1850 to 1890 supported many of the same principles that he had championed, primarily the idea that the imagination was the true interpreter of reality. Writers of the symbolist movement, including Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire, represented the objects of the physical world as symbols. To them, symbols are not only significant because they refer to other things, but they also have their own independent significance (as opposed to signs, which have no value except when they point to things that are valuable). In this poem, the bells fit this meaning of symbolism. The French Symbolists admired Poe for his attempts to experiment with symbols and music in his poetry, and they valued his works more consistently than any other group has.

Critical Overview

Immediately striking the reading public as an astonishing poem, “The Bells “has often been praised for its use of sound devices. Charles J. Peterson, who knew Poe from their work together on Graham’s Magazine, hailed it in an issue of the Philadelphia Saturday Gazette dated October 20, 1849, only thirteen days after Poe’s death. He announced its forthcoming appearance in Sartain’s Union and wrote: “The wild and irregular style of the verse … ; the skill with which the author avails himself of the subtle force that lies sometimes in the reiteration of a word; and many other peculiarities, none the result of chance, but all of the most careful thought, prove Mr. Poe to have been the greatest master of the mere art of composition, which this country, or perhaps this century, has produced.”

Peterson acknowledges that the subject of ringing bells is a “trite” one, but uses this fact to lavish further praise on his former associate. He suggests that only Poe could use such a simple subject to produce such a wonderful, original, and artistic poem. Another contemporary of Poe’s, John Moncure Daniel, wrote in the Southern Literary Messenger on March 16, 1850, that “the design of the verse is to imitate the sound of bells; and it is executed with a beauty, melody, and fidelity, which is unsurpassed among compositions of its nature.”

During the twentieth century, critics have continued to note the power of this poem. Although W. H. Auden, in an essay from 1950, states that the poem’s “subject is nothing but an excuse for onomatopoeic effects,” Vincent Buranelli, in his critical biography of Poe calls “The Bells” a “rhythmic triumph.” In Floyd Stovall’s study of Poe, Edgar Poe the Poet: Essays New and Old on the Man and His Work, he analyzes the connection between the bells and the four stages of man. He writes: “The silver bell is appropriate for childhood, and its tinkling suggests a merry mood. The golden bell is the right one for youth, and its mellow sound is suited to the church wedding. The brazen bell, used for fire alarms, represents by its harsh and discordant note the turbulence and danger of middle age. The iron bell is suited to old age because of its heaviness and melancholy tone, and also because it is associated with the funeral knell.”

Stovall also discusses in great detail Poe’s use of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and assonance, connecting all not so much to the philosophical theme of aging in the poem but showing how the various sound devices produce pleasant, mellow, or excited stressful moods. He concludes his discussion by commenting: “In ‘The Bells’ the sounds of the syllables, taken by themselves and in their context, are doubtless more important than the denotative meanings of the words.”


Chris Semansky

Chris Semansky’s poems and essays appear regularly in literary journals. He teaches writing and literature at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. In the following essay, Semansky deems “The Bells” “superficial” because of its focus on sound rather than ideas.

Many poets and critics have rejected the notion that a poem can be paraphrased and that a reader can somehow reduce the poem’s meaning to a message or a point. Believing that a poem’s imagery and sound have as much to do with the reader’s experience of the poem as its ideas, Edgar Allan Poe also claimed that knowing what went into a particular poem or knowing the writer’s intention in writing it was largely irrelevant; he believed the unity of effect the poem had on the reader should be the measure of its success. “It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of Art rather by the impression it makes—by the effect it produces—than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of ‘sustained effort’ which had been found necessary in effecting the presentation,” Poe wrote in his essay “Poetic Principle.” Poe’s focus on the poem’s effect centered on how it sounded. By focusing on sound to the exclusion of ideas, however, Poe frequently wrote superficial poems; probably one of his worst was “The Bells” (1849). By looking at both criteria—how and why the poem was written and the effect it has had—we’ll explore why the poem has not succeeded.

The genesis of “The Bells” tells us something about Poe’s motivation for writing it. Poe complained to his friend Marie Louise Shew Houghton that he needed money and had to write a poem, yet had no subject to write about. Houghton suggested writing about bells, because they were ringing outside.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Charles Baudeliare’s collection of poems Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) is considered one of the most important books of the French Symbolist movement and was the subject of a famous obscenity trial when it was published. The author’s style shows the influence of Poe’s work throughout. The 1982 translation by Richard Howard (published by David R. Godine, Inc.) is particularly well done.
  • One of the most reliable and readable biographies of Poe is Kenneth Silverman’s Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. Silverman’s book is full of meticulously researched details, and his style makes this a pleasurable reading experience. He has also written a biography about Harry Houdini, another historical American associated with the supernatural.
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s essays about writers and writing have been collected and packaged under many different titles. The University of Nebraska’s collection, Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Robert L. Hough and published in 1965, divides Poe’s essays into three sections: one in which he explores the writing of poetry, using his own experience in producing “The Raven” as an example, and sections in which he gives sharp, brutal examinations to works of contemporary British and American authors.
  • For insight into the tumultuous personal life and thoughts of the author, Harvard University Press has compiled The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1948.

side. Poe scholar David Smith noted that whether the bells were fire bells or church bells is unknown. Houghton began the poem and Poe finished it. He later revised it and sold it to Union magazine for fifteen dollars, then revised it and sold it again for forty-five dollars. Writing poetry for money isn’t wrong; poets and writers have always struggled to make a living from practicing their art. However, this incident does underscore the deliberate and calculated manner in which Poe made his poems. Composed to arouse the reader’s sense of beauty through its use of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition, “The Bells” relied solely on technique to evoke its feeling.

When writers want to imitate the sound or the thing they describe they use a technique called onomatopoeia. “Buzz,” for example, is a word that sounds like the action it represents. In this way the distance between the thing or action represented and the word or words used to represent it is shortened, and the reader, theoretically, is closer to experiencing that thing or action. Poe’s use of words such as “tintinnabulation” and his repetition of words such as “bells” and “time” are onomatopoeic—as is the rhythm of the entire poem—in the sense that they attempt to mimic the sounds of bells themselves.

In each stanza Poe chooses onomatopoeic words to describe the respective bells. For example, in the first stanza he rhymes the words “tinkle,” “oversprinkle,” and “twinkle” to suggest the frivolous, carefree days of winter sledding and to echo how sleigh bells sound. The use of end-rhymed words—so called because the sound that is duplicated is at the end of the lines—in conjunction with the use of consonance, that is, the repeated use of consonants in words with varying vowels (e.g., “runic rhyme” / “turbulency tells” / “melancholy menace”) and the poem’s spell-like rhythm are all meant to evoke in the reader a sense of strangeness and beauty, although not necessarily pleasurable feelings. Although the first and second stanzas attempt to echo the sound of sleigh bells and wedding bells (traditionally “happy” sounds), the third and fourth stanzas attempt to do the same with alarm bells (fire) and funeral bells. Beauty, then, for Poe is as much rooted in the terror and dread of everyday living as it is in the feelings conventionally associated with it. Of the relationship

“The poem reads like a rhyming exercise cooked up in a poetry workshop, and what we feel is manipulation.”

between poetry and beauty, Poe wrote in “Poetic Principle”: “I make Beauty the province of the poem, simply because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes:—no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation in question is at least most readily attainable in the poem.”

In both poems and stories, terror and dread were Poe’s stock in trade. As a writer obsessed with chronicling the dark side of human experience, Poe attempted to evoke a sense of the supernatural and erase the line between dreams and waking life. Describing one of Poe’s methods for creating the otherworldly, Roy Harvey Pearce wrote in his book Continuity of American Poetry that Poe first described a place, “but only so as to make locating it impossible, since the locale is set in a manner which cancels out its potential for being a locale.” The “locale” in “The Bells” isn’t so much a physical place as it is an emotional space in which readers are asked to respond in vastly different ways in a very short time. The unity of effect Poe aims for is one of dislocation, of the very longing for place and substance that eludes us in the poem. It is the longing itself and the frustration that we feel in being unable to obtain the object of that longing (whatever that may be) that Poe wants us to feel. Unfortunately, we do not. Instead, the poem reads more like a rhyming exercise cooked up in a poetry workshop, and what we feel is manipulation.

Many critics have similarly expressed frustration with “The Bells.” Addressing the relation between the author’s experience and the poem itself, George Saintsbury wrote in Prefaces and Essay that “the piece does not seem as if Poe had ever heard real old bells … the subject was suggested to, not imagined by him.” Such a comment suggests that although Poe wanted his poems to be read without consideration of his intention or effort in writing them, more often than not they weren’t. In his article “The Refrain in Poe’s Poetry,” Anthony Caputi, though admiring Poe’s effort, nevertheless could not find beauty in a poem without ideas:

“The Bells” furnished final proof, if such proof is necessary, that ingenious technique never made poetry. Poe’s purpose in the poem was apparently to synthesize the ambivalences of experience by underscoring heavily the multifaceted complexity of a single object. To accomplish this purpose, he mastered the most intricate patterns of rhyme, vowel-motives, and refrains to be found in his poetry. Beginning with the sleigh bells, he qualifies “bells” all down the line: first wedding bells, then alarm bells, and finally funeral bells. Each repetition of the “Bells, bells, bells” refrain theoretically folds in another area of experience … “Bells” marks the high tide of Poe’s ineffectuality … [but] it also bears testimony to his immense gift for poetic conception.

Echoing the sentiments of T.S. Eliot, who called Poe “a gifted adolescent,” Daniel Hoffman surmised in his book Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, that Poe’s poetry is primarily a poetry for teenagers who themselves inhabit a kind of dreamy netherworld between childhood and adulthood. Speaking of “The Bells,” Hoffman wrote, “At fifteen one is ready, one needs, to be swept away by the sheer tintinnabulation of a poetry of sound, of incantatory spells, a poetry of hypnagogic trance which will possess one’s whole consciousness with a tomtom and a chime.” W. H. Auden, however, wrote in his Forewards and Afterwards that “‘The Bells’, though much less interesting than ‘Ulalume’ (a well-known long poem of Poe’s), is more successful because the subject is nothing but an excuse for onomatopoeic effects.”

“The Bells” appears so frequently in poetry anthologies not because it is a great poem but because it exemplifies so well the sonic qualities poetry can have. If we read it in this light, as a demonstration of the various techniques poets have and can use to achieve effects, rather than as an example of good verse, we are reading it in the correct manner. If, however, we read “The Bells” as an instance of the best poetry has to offer (often the criteria upon which anthology selection is based), we do ourselves, and poetry, a disservice.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.

Floyd Stovall

In the following excerpt, Stovall gives an overview of Poe’s work, defending it against negative critics and noting that “in the final reckoning, [Poe’s] weaknesses should not be charged against his strengths.

Of the four collections of poems published by Poe, three appeared in his youth: Tamerlane and Other Poems in 1827, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems in 1829, and Poems in 1831. The fourth volume, The Raven and Other Poems, did not appear until 1845, fourteen years later. The next edition, in which the poems after “The Raven” were collected for the first times, was that of Poe’s literary executor, Rufus W. Griswold, in 1850. All of the poems written after 1831 were first published in periodicals, some of them quite obscure. As a rule they did not receive the meticulous care in editing which Poe might have been expect to give them under more favorable circumstances.…

The dominant themes and patterns of Poe’s poetry were mainly established by 1831, but it would be a mistake to suppose that his career as a poet was “essentially finished” [as suggested in Edward H. Davidson’s Poe: A Critical Study] at that time.… He also published eleven short poems between 1831 and 1845, totaling 312 lines.… These poems may have less spontaneity and imaginative freshness than the earlier work, but hey demonstrate a greater mastery of the technical problems of the poet’s art. His twelfth poem after 1831, “The Raven,” was published in the Evening Mirror near the end of January, 1845, as previously noted, and was widely reprinted in newspapers over the country. It gave a tremendous boost to Poe’s reputation as a poet and was probably a factor in making possible the fourth edition of his poems, The Raven and Other Poems, published in November of the same year.…

During the four years remaining after the publication of The Raven and Other Poems, Poe published a dozen poems.… [T]hree—“Ulalume,” “The Bells,” and “For Annie”—are surely the best of the late poems, and each of them is unique in theme and style. “Ulalume,” though not pleasing to many readers, displays all of Poe’s extraordinary virtuosity in the manipulation of sound, sense, meter, rhyme, and stanza arrangement. There is something of the grotesque in this poem, though less of it than in “The Raven,” that lightens somewhat the prevailing gloom. The theme, as in “The Raven,” is inconsolable grief for the death of a beloved one, and a story is suggested by the symbols employed, but the poet is careful not to reveal too much. “The Bells” is equally effective, though the effects produced are quite different. This poem is a quaternion projecting the four periods of a man’s life—childhood, youth, middle age, and old age—through the quality of sounds produced on silver, gold, brass, and iron bells. The

“Later poems reflect primarily the analytical and constructive faculty.”

intensity of each stanza is in direct proportion to its length, and the progressive lengthening of the stanzas is achieved by increasing the number of repetitions without introducing any new words or ideas.

Readers who admire the mellifluous tones and movements of “The Sleeper” and “The City in the Sea” sometimes feel inclined to reject the contrived pyrotechnics of “The Raven” and “Ulalume.” it is possible, however, to defend both types of poetry, perhaps to reconcile them, as representing the two sides of Poe’s genius. The early poems, even after revision, were dominated by the conceptual and imaginative faculty of the mind, whereas the later poems reflect primarily the analytical and constructive faculty. Poe believed that both faculties are essential to the poet, as they are likewise essential to the scientist, for they are complementary powers of any well-balanced mind. In the early poems images rise spontaneously and find their proper expression in language that naturally falls into musical patterns attuned to feeling: in the later ones the images rise with equal spontaneity, but they are seized by the constructive mind at once and subject tot he craftsman’s skill, so that they issue in language permeated more by ideas than be feeling.…

Poe’s poems, like his tales, are notable for their original conceptions and for the technical perfection of their execution. His ear was excellent; such irregularities of meter and discordant collocations as may be found in the late poems were intention and served a purpose more important, at the moment, than pleasing the senses. But Poe could write mellifluous verse in his as well as in his early years, as witness “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee.” Like [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, he found music essential to poetry, and in the “Letter to B—,” the prefatory essay to Poems, 1831, which was his earliest venture in prose criticism, he defined poetry as music combined with a pleasurable idea. There is no question as to the musical quality of his poetry. Some critics, however, have complained of

“There is no question as to the musical quality of his poetry. Some critics, however, have complained of the absence of ideas.”

the absence of ideas. In 1909 W. C. Brownwell said [in his American Prose Masters] of all of Poe’s writings: “They lack substance. Literature is more than an art.” In our time, T.S. Eliot has called Poe a gifted adolescent, and Allen Tate has said that his perceptual powers remained undeveloped. There is a certain amount of truth in all of these opinions; but the faults they adduce, if they exist, should be seen in the proper perspective. This perspective is provided by Poe’s theory of the nature of poetry and of the function of the poet. The poet’s truth is an intuition, and excitement of the soul that he called the Poetic Sentiment, and it is the product not of rational thought but the contemplation of beauty. The only substance of beauty is form. A rational construction, such as his prose poem “Eureka” or his tales of ratiocination, may have beauty, but that beauty subsists in the consistency, the harmonious relationship, of the ideas, not in the ideas themselves.

Poe’s poems can be said to lack substance only if the theory which they exemplify is wrong. If his theory is right, or if we accept that part of it which concerns the relation of beauty and truth, we must admit that his poems have the true substance of art in their power of inducing intuitions of truth in the responsive reader. Such truths are untranslatable—they cannot be expressed in terms of the intellect or of the moral sense—but they are nonetheless real to all who accept truth and beauty as of one essence. Although exponents of the doctrine of “art for art” cannot rightly claim Poe as their prophet, they may well find comfort in his poetry as in his poetic theory. Some modern poets might, in all candor, confess a great indebtedness to Poe than they have been inclined to do. Poe was surely among the first theorists to affirm that a poem’s primary value is in itself, not in what it tells us about something, whether that something be a moral or intellectual truth or some revelation of the poet himself. A poem is not a document, but a total creation; it is not a part of a world only, but a world in itself. When these matters are better understood, Poe’s poetry may be more highly estimated.

Of all American writers, critics have found Poe the most difficult to categorize in a phrase. Longfellow has been depreciated as a genial sentimentalist, Emerson tolerated as a hopeful idealist, Hawthorne appreciated as a physician of souls, and Whitman hailed as a prophet of the new Eden. But Poe was neither genial nor hopeful, and he grew to look skeptically on Edens here or hereafter. In his high regard for art he was akin to Hawthorne, and in his speculative intellect he had something in common with Melville; but where in nineteenth-century America will one meet with the equal of his critical acumen, his disciplined narrative skill, or his sure feeling for verbal sounds and rhythms? On the other hand, no other American writer of the first rank lent his talent to weaker performances than some of his carping book review or his more grotesque attempts at humor. Three or four of his poems addressed to literary ladies do but slight credit to their author. His late poems, with their ingenious and complicated structure, have been said to “smell of the lamp.” But Poe should be judged objectively on positive, not negative, evidence; in the final reckoning, his weaknesses should not be charged against his strength. One does not arrive at the true worth of a literary artists by taking an average of his work.

Perhaps Poe’s greatest single literary virtue is his originality. Each of his best poems and tales, as I have said, is unique in its kind. He was not an assembly-line creator. And though his critical ideas may be largely derivative, he made them his own, enlarged them, and used them well to his own purposes. He wrote a dozen poems and nearly as many tales that approach artistic perfection. His tales, however contrived, are vivid, and the strange beauty of his poems is inimitable. Wherein lies his true genius? That would be hard to say with conviction. Any just estimate of his work must take into account his total achievement in the three fields of criticism, fiction, and poetry. In his own mind, and in the minds of a good many, though probably a minority, of his critics, he was a poet first of all and above all else. It is possible that he made his most enduring contribution to literature in the creation of a few unforgettable poems.

Source: Introduction to The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Floyd Stovall, The University Press of Virginia, 1965, pp. xix-xxxvii.


Auden, W. H., “Edgar Allan Poe,” in his Forewords and Afterwords, edited by Edward Mendelson, Random House, 1973, pp. 209-20.

Buranelli, Vincent, in his Edgar Allan Poe, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961, 157 p.

Caputi, Anthony, “The Refrain in Poe’s Poetry,” in American Literature, Vol. XXV, No. 2, May 1953, pp. 169-78.

Daniel, John Moncure, “Review,” in Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, edited by I. M. Walker, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 356-75.

Hoffman, Daniel, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1972.

Mason, Germaine, A Concise Survey of French Literature, Totawa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1966.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, “American Renaissance: The Poet as Simple, Separate Person,” in his Continuity of American Poetry, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Peterson, Charles J., “Mr. Poe’s Last Poem,” in Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, edited by I. M. Walker, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 319-21.

Poe, Edgar Allan, “The Poetic Principle,” in Poems and Essays on Poetry, edited by C. H. Sisson, Manchester, UK: Carcenet Press, 1995.

Saintsbury, George, “Edgar Allan Poe,” in his Prefaces and Essays, edited by Oliver Elton, MacMillan & Co., 1933, pp. 314-23.

Smith, Dave, The Essential Poe, New York: The Ecco Press, 1991.

Stovall, Floyd, Edgar Poe the Poet: Essays New and Old on the Man and His Work, University Press of Virginia, 1969.

For Further Study

Buranelli, Vincent, Edgar Allan Poe, second edition,

Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

Buranelli takes a close, careful look at Poe’s place in literary history. “The Bells” is analyzed briefly and found to be better than its reputation suggests.

Shaw, George Bernard, “Edgar Allan Poe,” in Critical Essays on Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Eric W. Carlson, Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1987. pp. 86-90.

In an essay originally published in 1909, Shaw, one of this century’s great playwrights, examines the reasons British and American literature were never able to find a place for Poe.

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The Bells

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