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The Bells

The Bells


by Edgar Allan Poe

Stanza 4 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 70-71

Hear the tolling of the bells--
Iron bells!

  • With the last section comes the last set of bells. These are made of iron.
  • Notice how we've dropped down in this poem from bells made of precious metals (silver and gold), to bells made of brass, and now we're ending with iron. It's a great symbol of the downward curve of happiness in this poem. Just imagine the heavy, hard sound of an iron bell – no fun, for sure.
  • (Psst. Want to hear an iron bell? Click here.)

Line 72

What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!

  • All the excitement and terror of the fire-alarm bells has been drained out in this section. Now we're filled with "solemn thought."
  • The speaker uses a fancy but super-important word to describe the sound of the bells. He calls it a "monody." That can mean a single melody, but it also refers to a funeral poem or song. It's a subtle hint that we're dealing with death here, which is Poe's favorite territory.

Lines 73-74

In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright

  • Here we get grim images of people lying awake at night, listening to the bells and shivering with fear.
  • Every part of this poem has taken place at night, but this is a much scarier, more sinister night than we've dealt with before.

Line 75

At the melancholy meaning of their tone!

  • The speaker doesn't quite come out and say it here, but we bet the "melancholy meaning" he's talking about here is death.
  • There's probably a reason things are left a bit unclear. That sense of not quite knowing what's going on only amplifies the feeling of dread that's at the center of this section of the poem. It's the old horror movie rule: the monster is scarier when you can't see it.

Lines 76-78

For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.

  • Here the speaker is using a trick he tries out everywhere in this poem: personification. Personification involves giving human traits (feelings, action, or characteristics) to non-living objects (things, colors, or ideas).
  • The speaker imagines the ringing sound coming out of the "throats" of the bells. This is definitely personification because bells don't actually have throats, only people do.
  • The speaker actually says the sound is coming from the "rust" inside their throats. We love this image. It makes us think of a rusty iron bell, but we can also just hear the croaking, raspy sound of a rusty human voice. This is like Tom Waits after a bad night, a voice that can only "groan." It's such a perfect way of winding together the ringing of a bell and the sound of a voice.

Lines 79-81

And the people--ah, the people--
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All alone,

  • Now the focus shifts. We move up to the steeple, where the bells are ringing. Apparently there are people living up there, all alone.
  • This is the first we've heard about these people, but right away we know something isn't right. Unless you're the hunchback of Notre Dame, you probably don't live in a steeple. The mystery deepens…

Lines 82-83

And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,

  • Apparently these weird steeple-dwellers are the ones who ring the bells. They make the sinister, "muffled" sound of the bells.
  • The word "monotone" is important here too. The bells only make one note, over and over. It's not like wedding bells that make harmonious music. This line makes everything seem empty, lifeless, and passionless.

Lines 84-85

Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone--

  • It turns out that these bell-ringers aren't so nice. They actually enjoy ("feel a glory") making people miserable with the sound of their bells.
  • The speaker describes the sound of the bells as rolling a stone over the human heart, which sounds, well, pretty unpleasant.

Lines 86-87

They are neither man nor woman--
They are neither brute nor human--

  • The speaker is really playing up the mystery of the bell-ringers. He teases us by telling us what they are not, instead of what they are. Apparently they aren't men or women, or humans or animals ("brutes"). Um… so what are they?

Line 88

They are Ghouls:--

  • Here's the big reveal. These mean, bell-ringing critters are "Ghouls."
  • What's a ghoul? Well, it's a legendary monster that feasts on the bodies of the dead (hope you've had lunch already).
  • Of all the creepy monsters out there, ghouls are one of Poe's favorites. They show up in several of his other poems, including "Dream-Land" and "Ulalume." In this case they help to reinforce the death imagery that has been lurking under the surface.

Line 89

And their king it is who tolls;

  • The king of the ghouls is the one behind all of this dreary, sinister bell ringing. The speaker doesn't come out and say who that king is, but we think it's safe to fill in the blank in our minds with "Death" or "The Grim Reaper" or some other such bad guy.

Lines 90-92

And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls,
A pæan from the bells!

  • The king of the ghouls sends a terrible sound out from the bells. It rolls and rolls out, over and over again.
  • The repetition in these lines ties in with all the others, and keeps us thinking about the endless sound of the bells.
  • The sound coming from the bells is described in line 92 as a "paean," which is a song of triumph. That's definitely not the right mood for a song of death and despair, and it reinforces how creepy these ghoulish guys are.

Lines 93-94

And his merry bosom swells
With the pæan of the bells!

  • Instead of being depressed by the sound of the iron bells (like the people who hear them down below), the king is filled with joy. When he hears his song of triumph coming from the bells, his heart is filled with happiness. What a jerk.

Lines 95-96

And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,

  • The king of the ghouls dances and shouts in time with the music of the bells. While everyone else who heard the iron bells shakes in their boots, he's having a party.
  • The pleasure of terror is a big part of Poe's work. He loves these moments where excitement and terror mix together.

Lines 97-99

In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the pæan of the bells--
Of the bells:

  • We've heard about this Runic rhyme stuff before. Remember? It was in a happier moment, back on line 10, when it described the way the stars twinkled along with the silver bells. Now it describes something way more evil – the king of the ghouls celebrating his song. This poem has come a long way in less than 100 lines.

Lines 100-104

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;

  • From here on out, the poem, doesn't bring in a lot of new ideas. Instead, the speaker kind of riffs on the sounds and the rhythms that he's laid down already.
  • Think of it as being a little like remixing a track. Every now and then he'll fold in a new word, like "throbbing" or "sobbing," but the point is mostly to play around in this sonic (sound) landscape. We definitely recommend reading aloud here.

Lines 105-106

Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,

  • We have more playing around with repetition here.
  • A quick vocabulary note: to "knell" means to ring, but usually it's associated with death or disaster. Maybe you've heard someone talk about a "death knell." In any case, it's the perfect word for Poe's deliciously gloomy ending.

Lines 107-112

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--

  • These final lines take the repetition and sound play to a whole new level. It's like an amped up version of what we've seen at the end of the other sections. We've seen all these words before, but Poe is taking us out on one last rocking chorus to end the song.

Line 113

To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

  • The last lines of each section in this poem are important, so this one's worth a look on our way out.
  • The final sound of the bells is "moaning and groaning." We think that's a perfect final note for this poem, summing up the feel of the last section.

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