by Edgar Allan Poe
Stanza 3 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Hear the loud alarum bells--
- Wham! All of a sudden, at the beginning of the third section, the poem takes a huge turn.
- Suddenly we're talking about a new kind of bell, not a happy wedding bell or a tinkly sleigh bell, but a loud brass alarm bell ("brazen" is an old fashioned way of saying that something is made of brass).
- (Want to hear a brass bell? Click here.
What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
- This line is a great example of how much the mood has changed.
- In the previous sections, the sound of the bells was filled with "merriment" (line 3) and "happiness" (line 17). Now the bells tell a "tale of terror."
- Before, the sound of the bells was full of "harmony" (line 17). Now it's all "turbulency" (think of an airplane in turbulence, that same feeling of shaking and churning and chaos).
- Even the alliteration in this line, the harsh repetition of the "t" sounds, makes us a little nervous.
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
- These lines give us a cool image of the bells screaming their "affright" (that just means fear) into the "startled ear of night."
- Have you ever been drifting off to sleep on a quiet night, and suddenly heard a car alarm go off? Or maybe you were relaxing in at midnight, watching a movie, and your smoke alarm started blaring because you left your frozen pizza in the oven for too long. The speaker is talking about those moments, about a noise so sudden that it seems like it's surprising the night itself.
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
- Since the bells aren't human, they can't give a real voice to their terror. Still, notice that the speaker talks about them as if they were living, feeling creatures, who are so "horrified" that they can only scream.
- Poe's heavy use of fear-related words is a big tip-off to the change in mood. The repetition of the word "shriek" is super-effective too. It's another one of those words that sounds like what it means – sharp, shrill, scary, like fingernails on a blackboard.
Out of tune,
- Here's a line where the spacing is really important. Notice how Poe sets these three little words out there on a line all by themselves. That creates a visual effect that forces us to focus on them, to think about why they are important.
- This line also sets up a contrast with the second section. Check out line 21, where the bells are "all in tune." This time, all that harmony has been broken by terror.
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
- In this line, we find out what the disaster is – a fire. Oh, this is a fire alarm. Old fire stations used to have big bells in them.
- The speaker imagines that the bells are begging the fire to have mercy. He repeats the image twice ("appealing" and "expostulation" are both ways of talking about pleading with someone). The fire, however, can't hear. It is "deaf" and "frantic" (crazy, out of control).
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
- Now we switch focus, and see the fire climbing up, jumping "higher, higher, higher" into the air.
- Repetition is such an important part of the way this poem works. Here it really helps to drive home the furious desire of that fire, trying to climb into the sky.
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
- Everything has heated up in this third section. Before, the speaker talked about stars and weddings and doves. Now it's all fire and burning and "desperate desire."
- The fire doesn't just hang out peacefully, it rages. It's on a mission ("a resolute endeavor").
- We love this part. We think Poe's at his best when he's talking about the dark, crazy, scary side of life.
Now--now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
- These lines represent another big contrast with the second section. Back when the golden bells were ringing, we got an image of a turtle-dove looking with love at the moon (lines 23-24). Here we see this crazy fire, leaping into the sky to try to sit next to the moon.
- It's a weird image, kind of hard to visualize. That's perfect for this section, though, which is all about a world in chaos. Hot red fire and the cold "pale-faced moon" are never supposed to mix, so we know something is really wrong here.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
- Now we get back to our main "characters," the bells. Not a lot of new information, here.
- The speaker recaps the idea of the bells telling a tale of terror, just like in line 38.
- He also repeats the word bells, keeping up that consistent echo we hear everywhere in this poem.
- Another short line set off by itself. Notice the exclamation point after "Despair!" (What a drama queen.) It's a great Poe word, one of the moods that he works particularly well.
- Notice that the sections are getting longer and more elaborate as Poe gets deeper into his favorite themes.
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
- This is the start of a long run of lines that tells us more about the sound and the feeling of those brass alarm bells.
- Notice the heavy, violent, chaotic words the speaker uses here: "clang, and clash and roar." No more happy tinkling, this sound is pure "horror," pouring straight out of the bells.
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
- This is a pretty weird personification of the "air" that the sound of the bells is pouring out into.
- The speaker imagines the air having a "bosom" which is "palpitating" (trembling, shaking). Maybe we'll just leave you to think about that one on your own…
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
- These lines represent another interesting shift. Now the speaker asks us to think about the ears that are hearing these bells. He says that the ear can tell things based on the sound of the bells.
- On that note, here's another thought: The speaker keeps mentioning the ear and sound because that's what the poem's all about. The words "twanging" and "clanging" are in there because they mean something, but also because they sound a particular way – just like bells.
How the danger ebbs and flows;
- Apparently people listening to the bells can tell how the fire is going based on the particular sound of the alarm bells.
- The "danger" of the fire flows in and out like an ocean tide. That's another image of liquid and flowing – there seem to be a ton of those in this poem.
Yet, the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
- Here the speaker repeats the ideas of lines 57-60, but uses different words. You can just see Poe enjoying himself here, playing around with different sound effects, different ways of turning a phrase. Here "twanging" and "clanging" are replaced by "jangling" and "wrangling." It's like a word game, finding all the different ways of imitating the sound of a ringing bell.
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells--
- This line repeats and builds on some of the ideas from the previous lines.
- The bells have feelings, they are full of "anger." That anger rises and falls like an ocean tide, another image of a powerful, uncontrollable force.
Of the bells--
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells--
- Here it comes again, maybe the most instantly recognizable thing about this poem: the repeating of the word "bells."
- If you check back in the previous two sections, you'll see that the speaker always repeats the word "bells" in the same place (right near the end of the stanza), but he also always does it in a slightly different way. It's an echo, a refrain, but it isn't exactly the same. Even when Poe seems to be repeating himself, he's also keeping us guessing.
In the clamour and the clangour of the bells!
- In the first two sections, we ended on a happy note, full of harmony and cheerful ringing. Here, like in all of section 3, things are pretty different. Now the sound of the bells is full of "clamour" and "clangour" (those are both ways of describing a wild uproar, a loud, repeated noise). This is how we might describe the sounds a little kid makes when he's banging together pots and pans and generally making a racket. No more happy bells for Poe.