Study Guide

The Bells Quotes

  • Fear

    How they scream out their affright! (line 40)

    This is a great image, and a good example of Poe's awesomeness (yeah, we're pretty big fans). Instead of just clanging loudly, the brass alarm bells scream out their fear ("affright"). This use of personification gives a feeling of intensity and danger to this moment. It's as if the fire was so hot and scary that it even brought the bells to life. It's a big change from the happy sleigh rides and mellow weddings we've been hearing about in the first few sections. All of a sudden the monster of fear is on the loose.

    What a tale their terror tells (line 52)

    First of all, check out the excellent alliteration in this line. There's a tight, nervous sound in all those repeating "t"s. We think it helps to ratchet up the tension, and make us feel the fear that's spreading through the poem. This is Poe's home base, for sure. He made his reputation on tales of terror, and on descriptions of moments just like this one, when fear hangs in the air.

    What a horror they outpour (line 55)

    Notice the way that the speaker cycles through different words for the fear that the bells feel (and the fear their sound causes). He calls it "affright," "terror," and now "horror." In this case, he's talking about a kind of liquid horror pouring out of the bells. It helps to remember that fire was a really scary and common thing in the nineteenth century, when this poem was written. If you heard a fire alarm bell in the night, you better believe you'd be scared.

    How we shiver with affright (line 74)

    Sometimes a little word makes all the difference. In this case, it's the word "we." This is the only time the speaker uses this word in the whole poem. It's the only moment where he includes us, his readers, in the story he's telling. The effect is subtle, but chilling. All of a sudden we can imagine ourselves lying in bed, shivering with fear. Maybe it makes you think of those moments when you sat up and listened for things going bump in the night.

    Feel a glory in so rolling
    On the human heart a stone--     (line 84-85)

    We really like this image as a way of describing the effects of fear. We can feel the weight of that stone rolling over our hearts, creating a crushing heaviness in our chests. The creepiest thing about this is that the ghouls who are spreading this fear seem to enjoy it. What's scary and awful for us is just a good time for the ghouls. It's a classic Poe moment. The sickness of fear mixes with the thrill of horror – after all, there must be a reason we keep reading poems and stories about scary things.

  • Death

    How the danger ebbs and flows; (line 60)

    Fire was a big threat in Poe's day, and the chance that you would die in a fire, or lose your whole house, was much greater than it is today. Even today, fire is a scary and unpredictable thing. In this moment in the poem, the power and danger of fire is stalking through the town, and we know that death is marching along with it. At this point death is lurking just behind the fire. It's an invisible threat in the poem, but we can feel its presence.

    What a world of solemn thought their monody compels! (line 72)

    The word "monody" has heavy overtones of death. It can mean a poem in which the speaker laments someone's death, or a mournful song. In this case, the song of the bells is forcing the people listening to it to think "solemn thoughts." In our experience, that's just how thoughts of death creep into the mind. The speaker weaves the thread of death into the poem with the lightest possible touch. He picks just the right words to hint that death is slipping out of the bells like a ghost.

    At the melancholy meaning of their tone! (line 75)

    Behind the tone of the bells, the wordless sound they make, there's some kind of "melancholy meaning." We can be pretty sure that these bells are ringing for some sad occasion. Given the little hints the speaker drops, we think it's pretty safe to assume that the iron bells are ringing for a funeral. Maybe the occasion isn't as important as the pure feeling of the sound, the heavy misery that the bells broadcast. It's a totally different feeling from the frantic fear of the fire alarm bells in section 3.

    They are Ghouls:-- (line 88)

    Ghouls are legendary creatures that feast on the delicious corpses of the dead. Having ghouls show up in this poem is another way to bring in the hint of death. These nasty little critters thrive on death. It fills them with joy. Their only job in this poem seems to be to help their master spread misery and the fear of death all over the town.

    To the sobbing of the bells (line 104)

    This is one of many moments in the poem where the bells seem to come to life. In this case they are sobbing, as if they were crying over someone's death. The speaker never tells us that the iron bells of the fourth section are funeral bells, but there's a heavy feeling of death over the end of the poem. Imagine an occasion so sad that even metal bells would cry. That's exactly what we're dealing with here.

  • Happiness

    With a crystalline delight; (line 8)

    We think the phrase "crystalline delight" sounds like pure, concentrated happiness. It just naturally makes us want to smile. The sounds are crisp and pleasant, and the image it calls up in our minds is bright and clean. This is the essence of the mood at the opening of this poem: clear, cheerful, and totally unspoiled by fear or sadness or death. At this point in the poem you might be wondering, "Did Edgar Allan Poe <em>really</em> write this poem?"

    What a world of happiness their harmony foretells! (line 17)

    At this moment, the bells are forecasting a kind of endless happiness, spreading all over the world. That makes sense, since they are ringing for a marriage. That's normally a moment of excitement and possibility. Ideally, it's also a moment of "harmony," where the love of two people chimes together like bells ringing in tune.

    How they ring out their delight! (line 19)

    This is another moment of pure, unspoiled joy. The bells come alive with happiness. They are filled with "delight," which we usually think of as a human feeling. The point is that the whole poem and the whole world it describes are just drenched in happiness at this point. Poe is setting us up for a pretty big fall, but we don't know that yet. We're only seeing one side of the coin – the joy that can't last forever, but that feels like it's going to.

    Feel a glory in so rolling
    On the human heart a stone--     (line 84-85)

    Here's where the "happiness" in this poem takes a turn for the creepy. Now we're talking about the joy and the "glory" that the ghouls feel when they spread misery. Think of these guys as being a little bit like the Grinch. For them happiness is misery, and misery is absolute joy. They turn everything upside down. Just like the Grinch, they perch up above the town and chortle when they see signs of sadness.

    And his merry bosom swells (line 93)

    The king of the ghouls is the meanest and nastiest creep of them all. When he rings out death and suffering over the town, his heart fills with delight. This is the dark mirror image of the more "normal" joy that we saw earlier in the poem. In fact, that's kind of how the whole poem works, like a light and a dark reflection of the same story.

  • Art and Culture

    What a world of merriment their melody foretells! (line 3)

    The fact that the sound of the bells is described as a "melody" seems like an important part of the opening of this poem. We're not talking about some sort of flat "ding, ding, ding." The song of the bells is full of life and cheerfulness. Of course bells on a sleigh can't really play a song with an actual melody. The point here is more to pay attention to the ways that notes and sounds and rhythms can affect us. That's exactly what Poe is exploring with the words and the rhythms of "The Bells."

    In a sort of Runic rhyme (line 10)

    The speaker doesn't just compare the sound of the bells to music. He also mixes in comparisons to poetry and literature. The phrase "Runic rhyme" is a little bit mysterious. We use to the word "rhyme" to describe little poems (like nursery rhymes). So a Runic rhyme could be some ancient, strange poetry. Plus, those two words just kind of roll off the tongue, don't they? That play with sound is a big part of this line's impact.

    What a liquid ditty floats (line 22)

    Can't you just see this song floating through the air? You know when a person sings in a cartoon and you can sometimes see the notes flowing out into the world? That's exactly how we picture this song, like a delicate cloud wisping out of the bells.

    What a world of solemn thought their monody compels! (line 72)

    Here the speaker is offering us another comparison between the music of the bells and other kinds of art. A "monody" can be many things – a song sung by one person, a funeral poem, or a sad song. All of them are ways of talking about the link between bells and other kinds of man-made art. For all the talk about bells coming alive in this poem, they are something manmade. We pour them out of metal, and tune them, and play songs on them. What the speaker is really interested in is the way that different sounds can make us feel.

    To the pæan of the bells— (line 98)

    A "paean" is another word used to describe a musical work of art. It means a song of praise or triumph. In this case, it's a little bit ironic, since the triumph of the ghouls and the misery they create isn't really a good thing. It's all part of the flipping effect in the poem. The speaker is trading the happy ditties of the first two sections for the twisted, triumphant songs of fear and death in the last two sections.

  • Man and the Natural World

    In the icy air of night! (line 5)

    One thing you might not notice immediately about this poem is that each of the sections takes place at night. In a way, the nighttime is almost like a character in the poem. Nighttime is a thread that holds the whole thing together. In this first section, the night is full of happy glittering stars, and everything seems peaceful. Still (and maybe we're just imagining it because we know what's coming), isn't there something a little sinister about that "icy air"?

    While the stars that oversprinkle
    All the heavens, seem to twinkle (lines 6-7)

    The stars in this first section twinkle right along with the bells. In the first two chunks of this poem, everything is in harmony. The manmade bells and the natural world sing in tune, and everything is just fine.

    To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
    On the moon! (line 23-24)

    With the exception of the ghouls that show up later, this is the only living thing in the poem that we get a close look at. The turtle-dove is an old symbol of true love and fidelity. That makes her just the right choice for this happy part of the poem. The loving looks that she is giving the moon are important too. Remember, the whole point here is that love and happiness and harmony are everywhere, even in birds and the moon.

    In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire, (line 45)

    A raging fire is a perfect example of the dark side of nature. Up until this point in the poem, the natural world has been harmless, all cooing birds and twinkling stars. Now it has taken a turn for the worse. It's frantic, and people and their bells can't do a thing to stop it. The fire doesn't have any ears (it's "deaf"), so it can't be reasoned with. It's completely wild and completely independent from the world of mankind.