Monday, August 20, 2012

The Bells, by Edgar Allan Poe

Listen to The Bells

The first of Poe's poems that I've read (recently) is The Bells (you might want to listen to it before reading my commentary). This poem was written in 1948, in the year following his wife Virginia's death of consumption at the age of 25. Wikipedia suggests that the poem depicts a man mourning his lost wife. He courted her at Christmas to the sound of sleigh-bells in stanza one, married her in the second stanza, and then she dies in a fire as the husband watches in the third stanza. In the fourth stanza,  the grief-stricken husband goes mad. This is certainly an approachable interpretation. I think a life-cycle interpretation is more interesting though. In my opinion:

The first stanza is about the playful innocence of childhood. The merry tinkling of sleigh bells suggests a care-free mood--pure enjoyment of the moment. Even the Heavens twinkle with delight at the youthful merriment. But the poem also suggests that time is passing: 

              Keeping time, time, time
              In a sort of Runic rhyme 

"Runic rhyme" suggests an occult influence...perhaps a spell is cast over the innocents, trapping them in a ghoulish foreplay for the dance that lay ahead.

In the second stanza, the poem has matured. It is no longer care-free, since it is motivated by love for a new spouse, rather than by simple delight at existence. The bells are now "mellow" with "molten-golden notes." These words suggest a sunset. Immediately following this symbolic sunset, the moon rises:

              What a liquid ditty floats
              To the turtle-dove that listens while she gloats
              On the moon!

Notice in this stanza the Heavens no longer join in the celebration, instead they are admired from afar. The universe has distanced itself from the poem. 

The third stanza tells of torture in the eve of death. This torture could represent a plethora of pains. To me, the fire recollected the turbulence of war and politics. Throughout Poe's life he would have experienced the tortuous birth-pains of a new nation in a world at war. It could also symbolize the suffering of someone dying of disease--such as consumption, like his wife. Or the "deaf and frantic fire" could be the moral or religious guilt of a man who has lived a life of profligacy and regrets his youthful vices. He might be overcome by waves of self-abhorrence.

             Yet the ear, it fully knows,
             By the twanging 
             And the clanging,
             How the danger ebbs and flows--
In this third stanza the poet is "now to sit, or never / By the side of the pale-faced moon." No longer does the poet admire the splendor of the moon. It is pale--it has lost its glory. Now, or never, he must sit and mourn by the Heavens which have deserted him.

In the final stanza Death (or perhaps Satan) triumphs. There are people--ah, the people! that dwell up in the steeple...all alone. These are spirits separated from their bodies. 

             They are neither man nor woman--
             They are neither brute nor human,
             They are Ghouls:

These ghouls have lost their identities. They are now simply servants of the king, Death. With finality they: "Feel a glory in so rolling / On the human heart a stone--" This is a tombstone, rolled over their hearts so they can no longer love. And the king's merry bosom swells as he dances and yells

             Keeping time, time, time,
             In a sort of Runic rhyme
             To the throbbing of the bells--

Again, the "Runic rhyme" casts its spell over the ghouls. And they are captured for eternity.

Similarity to Paradise Lost:

While writing my interpretation of The Bells, I was reminded of my studies of Milton's Paradise Lost. In lecture 18 of his series Why Evil Exists, Professor Charles Mathewes suggests that the difference between Satanic sin and human sin is that Satan sins out of a self-aware wish to rebel against God; Adam's sin is that he loves Eve more than he loves God. He eats the forbidden fruit because Eve has already partaken. If he denies her, she will be "dead" to him, and he can't handle that loss. So human sin ropes in feelings about other people. (See my full summary of the lecture here.)

While I was pondering how to express my feelings on Stanza II, I thought that this second stanza could represent Adam's choice of Eve over God. It represents his marriage to her, and his subsequent separation from the Heavens--which, now, he could only admire from afar instead of living in its presence as in the first stanza. Following this train of thought, the third stanza would represent a human's life on earth after the fall--filled with waves of earthly disaster. The final stanza would be the torment of Hell. 

Of course, I'm not suggesting that this is what Poe had in mind when he wrote the poem. But I think it's interesting how such themes recur in literature. They are very powerful images that resound throughout time. Perhaps I'll even wax Jungian and suggest that they are an archetype of our collective consciousness. ;)


Another issue that struck me while I was reading this poem is thematic similarities between Poe's poem and Quasimodo's song about his bells in Notre Dame de Paris. I wonder if the playwright was influenced by Poe when he wrote this song? :)

Image taken from:


  1. Thanks for this detailed analysis of the poem, Rachel. I had no idea about Poe's marriage background, or how it could have influenced the poem. I do agree with you, nevertheless, that this poem rather alludes to the passing of a life-time. The first 'childish' section struck me in particular because it seems to invoke that lullaby we are so familiar with, "Twinkle twinkle little star," though I have no idea if it existed at the time.

    More than anything, I love how the rhythmic repetition of words mimic the ringing of bells, and how the use of several different types of words in these repetitions demonstrate the variety of sounds emanating from different types of bells. Bells had a far more dominant presence in people's lives before cars and computers: they told the hour, beginning of Mass, etc, and could be heard at a vast distance. I imagine that a contemporary of Poe's would know what each variation in tone communicated.

  2. Thanks for taking a look at my interpretation. :) I think the beauty of poetry is that it can have different meanings (superficial vs. deep) even to the author.

    Twinkle twinkle little star was published in 1806 according to Wikipedia. Given Lewis Carroll's parody of it in the Alice books, I'm guessing it must have been a popular poem in the 19th century. :)

    I am also a huge fan of his rhythmic repetition and onomatopoeia. My favorite line of The Raven is "And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain." When it's read aloud it sounds like rustling.

  3. Thanks for your analysis! I personally like your interpretation of the poem as a story of his marriage more, I think it fits better, but the other one is deeper and also interesting. I usually have problems reading English poems, as the rhythmics is very different from the Russian ones, with which I am well acquainted. So the video was also helpful!

  4. Hi Arenel! I think Poe's poems are notoriously difficult to read aloud. He was rather experimental with rhythm.

    I imagine the poem WAS about the death of a woman...that seems to be what most of his poems are about. But I wanted to try a different interpretation route and see how far it got me. :)

  5. To the extent that Poe's poem is mind bogglingly musical, and uses the metaphor of ringing church bells as a metaphor for the main events of life, I would think Quasimodo's song was influenced by Poe. Rachmaninov's choral symphony, The Bells, was based on the poem because of its musicality (increased I have heard by the Russian translator). And the French song Trois Cloches, blown into the stratosphere by Edith Piaf, uses the same idea of church bells symbolizing life's passages. The song was also recorded in English as 3 Bells (aka Little Jimmy Brown). The songs rather reverse the poem's meaning and virtually castrate it for it is grim and horrific where death is not presented as some affirmative rite of passage. It's spirit, I think, is closer to his Conqueror Worm.

    But I think one would also have to admit the bells as things in themselves stand for something too, a purely artistic formality that magnificently represents the very essence of the very sonority of poetry enhanced, almost to the point of breaking, to the nth degree. That is as much the meaning of the poem as anything it says.


What do you think? I love getting comments!