Study Guide

The Bells

The Bells Introduction

Have you ever heard a sound that filled you with excitement and emotion? Have you ever listened to music that seemed to talk directly to your heart? That's the kind of experience that "The Bells" is all about. This was one of the last poems the famously spooky Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote. It was published in Sartain's Union Magazine in November of 1849, just after Poe's mysterious death in October of that year. Poe was paid $15 for his work.

"The Bells" isn't the most famous poem he ever wrote (that prize probably has to go to "The Raven"). It might, however, be the poem where he takes his musical, almost hypnotic style to its farthest extreme. It's hard to think of another Poe work so full of onomatopoetic brilliance (yeah, we just said "onomatopoetic" – we think Poe would be proud). This is Poe in all his weird glory, exploring the full range of human emotions and the power of his poetic craft.

What is The Bells About and Why Should I Care?

Poetry is partly about perfect phrases and inspiring feelings. At the bottom, though, it's all about sound. In a way, poetry is just as close to music as it is to other kinds of literature. "The Bells," in particular, is a lot closer to a song than, say, a story. Just like a song, you need to hear "The Bells" out loud. And just like a song, you don't really have to know the lyrics to get a good feel for it. You know how you can listen to a song tons of times, love the mood it creates, and have absolutely no idea what it's actually saying? That's because it's the sound that matters, not the words.

"The Bells," like a lot of Poe's work, is a crazy sonic (sound) journey. We totally recommend that you listen to a few versions of "The Bells" before reading it. Here are a few options:

  • Click here to listen to famous Shakespearean actor Basil Rathbone reads the poem.
  • Listen to a musical chorus sing the creepiest stanza of the poem about the iron bells and the ghouls.
  • Listen to 18 non professional readings of "The Bells" from LibriVox. Some of these are okay (we kind of like #10 by JCM, #11 by JM, and #14 by LV). Others are just embarrassing (like #8 read by GC). #16 by PH even sounds like Dracula reading the poem.

Now, just sit back and experience the sound of the poem. That's more than half the journey of understanding "The Bells."

The Bells Resources

Videos

The Poem Set to Music
It's kind of amazing how melodious and chilled-out (okay, and a bit cheesy) this guy makes the poem sound.  It's cool to see how many people love Poe's work and keep finding ways to reinterpret it.

Spooky Dude Reading "The Bells"
This one's definitely emphasizing the craziness of the poem. Wait until you see the makeup.

Audio

Poe Mash-up
On the award-winning site Knowing Poe, you can play with the sound of "The Bells." Select a male reader or a female one. Select either a monotone or emotional reading, and even add sound effects. Enjoy.

Basil Rathbone Reading "The Bells"
Just… awesome.  Famous Shakespearean actor Basil Rathbone reads the poem. We can't imagine anyone doing it better. He captures the weird, pompous sound of the words and the insanity lying under it all.

Rachmaninoff's Symphony
The great Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote a symphony based on a Russian translation of "The Bells." This is the first part of it (for the silver bells), and we think it's great.

Musical Version of Stanza 4
Listen to a musical chorus sing the creepiest stanza about the iron bells and the ghouls.

18 Non Professional Readings from LibriVox
Some of these are okay (we kind of like #10 by JCM, #11 by JM, and #14 by LV). Others are just embarrassing (like #8 read by GC). #16 by PH even sounds like Dracula reading the poem.

Silver Bells
Listen to the cheerful sound of some sleigh bells.

Golden Bells
We're not sure if these bells are golden (they probably aren't), but they're definitely wedding bells.

Brass Bell
Listen to this cool antique brass bell.

Iron Bell
Feeling scared yet?

Photos and Pics

Illustration of the Poem
An appropriately creepy painting by the French artist Edmund Dulac, this is from a 1912 illustrated edition of Poe's poems called The Bells and Other Poems.

John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe
We think it works. Apparently he's going to be in a movie about Poe called The Raven. You can bet we'll be there, opening night.

Websites

Different Versions of the Poem
This page gives a list of many different versions and separate printings of the poem.  It's fun to poke around in the early versions and see how the poem changed.  Actually, this whole website (the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore) is packed with great information about Poe.

The Poe Museum
There's plenty of good information about Poe. If you happen to be in Richmond, VA, you should stop by and check them out.

Knowing Poe
An all-around cool Poe site. Don't miss it.