Trochaic Meter, Irregular Rhyme
For the most part, Poe uses a kind of meter in this poem that we call "trochaic." That means that the poem is made up of pairs of syllables, with the first syllable in each pair being emphasized (stressed) and the second one not. A trochee makes a sound like DA-dum. Here, we'll show you how that works by dividing the syllable groups (poetry people call those "feet") with slashes, and by putting the stressed syllables in bold:
Hear the | sledges | with the | bells--
Silver | bells!
See how that works? A word like "silver" is a great example of a trochee: Sil-ver. Hear that? The first syllable is stressed. DA-dum.
You probably noticed right away that not all of these syllable groups make a perfect trochee like "silver." For example, the word "bells" hangs out by itself at the end of each line, with no unstressed syllable to follow it. This poem is filled with all kinds of irregular moments and chaotic little changes in the meter. We think that works really well with the slightly crazy subject. Still, under all that, you should be able to hear the basic trochaic rhythm: DA-dum, DA-dum, DA-dum.
Sections and Spacing
Maybe you noticed, when you first looked at this poem, that it's laid out on the page in an unusual way. Poe spaced out the lines in a careful order, although it's hard to see a pattern. (If you look at the poem for way too long, like we have, you can start to see bell-shapes in each section, but that's probably the coffee talking.) One thing the spacing does do is draw your attention to particular lines. For example, check out the way that the short lines like "Golden bells!" (line 16) stand out on the page.
We also want to draw your attention to the four sections, because they are divided up in interesting ways. We've pointed out that each one is oriented around a particular bell made of a particular metal (silver, gold, brass, iron), and that the mood gets darker as the metals become less valuable. It's also interesting to note that the sections get longer as the poem goes on and picks up more speed.
One of the things you might have noticed about this poem is that there's a ton of rhyming going on. The pattern of the rhymes doesn't stay consistent, but once you've figured out the basic strategy in one section, it's easy to do it for the rest. Let's look at the rhyming in Stanza 1 as an example. We'll put the rhyming words in bold, and give each rhyming sound a letter, so you can see the patterns:
Hear the sledges with the bells-- (A)
Silver bells! (A)
What a world of merriment their melody foretells! (A)
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, (B)
In the icy air of night! (C)
While the stars that oversprinkle (B)
All the heavens, seem to twinkle (B)
With a crystalline delight; (C)
Keeping time, time, time, (D)
In a sort of Runic rhyme, (D)
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells (A)
From the bells, bells, bells, bells, (A)
Bells, bells, bells-- (A)
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells. (A)
See how that works? It's not a regular, repeating pattern, but it's very carefully planned out, like all aspects of Poe's poetry. He brings these same rhyming sounds back all through the poem, in a really cool, constantly shifting structure.