Study Guide

The Bells

by Edgar Allan Poe

The Bells Summary

Extended Summary

"The Bells" was written by Poe in 1848, but it was not published until December, 1849, some three months after his death. It is an irregular ode comprised of four numbered movements that vary in length, each one longer than its predecessor, each dedicated to a successive stage in the human life span, and each having its own type of metal bell. The poem is filled with alliteration, assonance and monosyllabic rhymes, and the reader cannot help but be struck by the sheer pace of its rapid lyrical flow.

"The Bells" is spoken (almost sung) by an unidentified and unobtrusive narrator who first directs our hearing to the sound of the merry silver bells of youth. The inference in the first movement is that the silver bells are being rung during the holiday season, their "tintinnabulation" (musical sound), creating a sense of excitement and unbounded possibilities. The second movement is given over to golden wedding bells, with their promise of marital happiness and romantic rapture. But then, in the third movement, alarm bells of brass send forth a terrifying, discordant sounds, as conflict enters into life, their hash, indeed, angry, "clanging," "jangling," and "wrangling" causing the hearts of their listeners to beat with the ebb and flow of danger at hand.

The iron bells of death ring through the fourth and final stanza, announcing funerals and evoking melancholy dread in those who hear them. The iron bells are characterized as "Ghouls" and it is their king who presides, "Keeping time, time, time/In a sort of runic rhyme." This couplet has already appeared in the first movement, but now it is repeated three times, suggesting the finality of death.