Poe plays all the notes he can in "The Bells," from shrill little piccolo tweets in the first section to bass drum booms at the end. Each part of the poem has its own distinct sounds, like different instruments woven together into a concert, a harmonious whole. It's amazing how close he gets to creating the feeling of a symphony in a single poem.
Still, it's a pretty weird symphony, right? The sounds are often jangly, distorted, and strange. Every sound is an echoey, distorted version of itself, and even the pretty parts sound a little weird and menacing.
A big part of the sound of this poem is Poe's use of onomatopoeia. Besides being a really fun word to say aloud, onomatopoeia refers either to words that resemble in sound what they represent. For example, do you hear the hissing noise when you say the word "hiss" aloud? And the old Batman television show loved onomatopoeia: "Bam! Pow! Kaplow!" In "The Bells," Poe uses words like "jingling," "tinkling," "clash," and "clang." How many other onomatopoetic words can you pick out? (Hint: There are a ton of them.)
You might have also notice that Poe uses a lot of repetition in this poem, like all of the times when he says "bells, bells, bells…" Doesn't that kind of make you think of the repeated tolling of a bell?
And, just for fun, how about listening to the sounds of all of the kinds of bells Poe mentions in this poem?
Poe's titles are usually pretty straightforward, and this one definitely is. The whole poem is a riff on the idea of bells. The speaker describes how they sound, how they make us feel, and the times and places where they ring.
As we said in our section on the "Speaker," we don't know much about our speaker, but it's clear that he likes to be out and about at night. Every section of the poem, whether cheerful or creepy, takes place after the sun has gone down. Though the setting remains pretty much the same – it's always dark out – the mood of the poem really changes. You know how you can be out alone at night feeling all happy, but then in a split second you can get freaked out and have the unreasonable fear that someone is totally following you? "The Bells" is like that – same setting, but the feel completely changes.
Maybe we've been watching too many vampire movies lately, but we think this poem could really be a vampire horror flick. In movies where vampires take over the world (you can substitute zombies here, if that's more your speed), things usually seem just fine at first. People are hanging out, taking sleigh rides, whatever it is they do. Then things go wrong. There's a ton of noise, and then a lot of fear, and finally, death. Check it out: the story arc in "The Bells" is pretty much the same. Now, read this poem again and imagine some vampires lurking. It kind of fits, right?
Unlike in lots of other Poe poems (we're thinking of "The Raven," "Annabel Lee," and "Dream-Land," in particular), speaker of "The Bells" doesn't have a strong presence. We're not finding ourselves wondering "Is this guy even sane? Can we trust him?" Nope, this guy isn't freaky, delusional, or ranting about a lost lover. Actually, he's kind of personality-less. He's not talking to us about himself or speaking in the first-person (there's no "while I pondered, weak and weary" – there's no "I" at all).
Hmm… so what's the deal with this speaker? It's not really clear. We have to dig around and look for clues. Here are a few things we notice:
We can't say much more about the guy. Are you able to find any other clues?
Poe throws some fancy and tricky words in here, like he always does. But the thing that matters most in this poem is the sound of the words, not their meaning, so even if the words are a bit unfamiliar, just trust your ears. With a little bit of help from Shmoop, you shouldn't have any trouble on this climb.
One of the best ways to know you're reading a Poe poem is to look for spooky, scary, melancholy imagery. Poe is one of the first American masters of horror, and almost all his work deals with fear, danger, monsters, terror, depression, and death – sometimes all at the same time. Fun stuff, huh?
Another Poe calling card is the way he plays with language. He loves to try out the craziest words he can find – you're probably not going to hear a lot of other people use the word "tintinnabulation" in normal conversation. He's a wizard with other poetic sound effects too, like repetition, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. So, if you're reading a spooky poem full of unusual sounds and words, chances are you're dealing with Edgar Allan Poe.
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.
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.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
No steaminess here – at all. In fact, there's not even any pining for a long-lost love, which makes it unusual for Poe.