Study Guide

The Bells

The Bells Summary

In this poem Poe imagines the sounds of four different kinds of bells, and the times and places where you might hear them. There's no plot in this poem, exactly, but there is something like an emotional arc, as we move from light, bubbly happiness to sadness, fear, and misery.

First, we hear silver bells on a sleigh, and the speaker tells us about the happy, tinkling sound they make. Next we hear the golden bells of a wedding, and he describes their mellow, joyful noise. Then things take a turn, as we hear the sound of brass alarm bells warning us about a fire. Finally, we hear the heavy, miserable sounds of iron bells. The sound of those bells makes the people who hear them really sad. Apparently, however, the creatures that are ringing the bells (the "ghouls") are delighted by the sound and the misery they are creating. It's classic Poe – things really come to life as soon as the terrifying noises and the weird monsters show up.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    Hear the sledges with the bells--
    Silver bells!

    • The first line asks us to listen to the bells. It also tells us what they are used for and what they are made of.
    • Poe starts every section of the poem this way, with a different kind of bell every time. In this case, the bells are made of silver, and they are hanging on "sledges" (that's another word for a sleigh).
    • (Need a reminder of what sleigh bells sound like? Click here.)

    Line 3

    What a world of merriment their melody foretells!

    • These are definitely happy bells, and they make a cheerful sound. Their melody is filled with the promise of fun ("merriment").
    • The poem is starting out in an unusually light and happy mood for Poe. Let's see if it lasts…

    Lines 4-5

    How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
    In the icy air of night!

    • This poem is full of repeated words, and here's the first set. The silver bells "tinkle, tinkle, tinkle" in the cold night air.
    • We think these lines give a really vivid sense of a particular moment and a specific sound. Can't you just hear those bells jingling across the snow, under the stars?

    Lines 6-7

    While the stars that oversprinkle
    All the heavens, seem to twinkle

    • Now the speaker tells us about the stars that are sprinkled over the sky, which twinkle along with the bells.
    • Those rhyming words, "twinkle" and "sprinkle" are super-important for this poem. Not only do they rhyme with "tinkle," but they also sound a lot like the things they are describing. This technique, called onomatopoeia, is one of Poe's main tools in this poem.
    • Listen to all those words: tinkle, sprinkle, twinkle. Don't they all have a light, happy, cheerful sound? That's exactly the feeling this whole section is trying to create.

    Line 8

    With a crystalline delight;

    • We really like the phrase "crystalline delight." It just makes us smile.
    • Again, the sound is so important. Try saying it aloud. It sort of pulls your mouth into a grin, doesn't it? It would be tough to say these words in a grumpy tone of voice – they're just too clean and sparkly and bright.

    Line 9

    Keeping time, time, time,

    • This poem is about the sound of words, for sure, but it's also about rhythm.
    • Now the speaker reminds us that not only do these bells "tinkle, tinkle, tinkle" (line 4), they also keep "time, time, time." That repetition echoes the tinkling sound, but it also establishes a rhythm – as if the words were counting out the beat like a metronome.

    Line 10

    In a sort of Runic rhyme,

    • The speaker compares the rhythm of the bells to a "Runic rhyme." What exactly does that mean?
    • Well, the "rhyme" part is important, since it makes us think of happy little songs or poems (like a nursery rhyme). It also subtly reminds us of the importance of rhyming sounds in creating the rhythm and feel of this poem.
    • "Runic" is a little trickier. Runes are letters in ancient alphabets. We think the speaker uses the word here to give a hint of mystery to the rhythm of the bells.

    Line 11

    To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells

    • Here's the hands-down best word in the poem: "tintinnabulation." It just means the sound of bells. But you didn't really need us to tell you that, did you? You can just hear it in the sound of the word. It's full of the silvery tinkling of sleigh bells.
    • This is the ultimate in onomatopoeia – a word that sounds like the thing it's describing. This sound rises ("wells") up from the bells like music.

    Lines 12-13

    From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
    Bells, bells, bells--

    • Until now this poem has just been full of pretty descriptions of happy little bells. Now things get a little whacky.
    • The speaker repeats the word bells eight times in a row. Maybe that's just to make us think of the constant ringing sound the bells make. Couldn't he have gotten that effect with just a few repetitions, though? There's something about the number of times he says it that's maybe just a little excessive, a little crazy-sounding. Keep an eye on this guy…

    Line 14

    From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

    • We end this section on a happy, calm note, listening to the cheerful jingling and tinkling of the silver sleigh bells. It kind of makes us think of happy thoughts, like Christmas carols.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 15-16

    Hear the mellow wedding bells
    Golden bells!

    • At the beginning of the second section, we meet a new kind of bell. This one's a golden wedding bell.
    • The feeling is still happy, and the sound of the bells is "mellow." No hyper-ness here. These bells are more calm, relaxed, and smooth.
    • (Never heard any wedding bells? Click here.)

    Line 17

    What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!

    • To the speaker, these bells sound like a prophecy of good times and harmony. The word "harmony" seems important, since these are wedding bells. These bells predict a happy marriage.
    • The mood is happy, like it was in the first section, but maybe there's something a little more grounded and calm and serious about the joyful sound of these golden bells.

    Lines 18-19

    Through the balmy air of night
    How they ring out their delight!

    • The sound of the bells rings through the "balmy" (warm) air of the night.
    • All these lines are soothing and joyous, filled with "delight." The speaker is filling our heads with sounds and rhythms, but he's also definitely building a mood here.

    Line 20

    From the molten-golden notes,

    • Here's another great description of the smooth, flowing sound of these bells. The speaker describes the notes as "molten," which usually describes hot, melted metal. (Think of molten lava oozing down the side a volcano, or molten chocolate pouring out of the center of your rich chocolate cake.) We can almost see the notes rolling and glowing and pouring out from the bells.
    • The kind of metal that the bells are made out of is deeply symbolic, and what could be a better symbol of harmony and beauty and calm than gold? Gold is also often the color of wedding bands.

    Lines 21-22

    And all in tune,
    What a liquid ditty floats

    • Of course these beautiful notes are also "all in tune." This echoes the "harmony" the speaker mentioned in line 17. This molten golden music makes a "liquid ditty" that floats on the air.
    • The words the speaker picks are, as always, super-important. The idea that the music is "liquid" underlines the easy, smooth-flowing feel that runs through this section. Calling the music a "ditty" maintains the sense of lightness and joy.

    Lines 23-24

    To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
    On the moon!

    • Apparently this music is floating up to a turtle-dove who is listening to the bells.
    • The turtle-dove is an old symbol of love and faithfulness. That makes her a good fit for this section of the poem, which is all about marriage and harmony.
    • Apparently this dove also "gloats/ On the moon." This is an old fashioned way of saying that she's looking at the moon with love and satisfaction (not gloating in a negative way, like we tend to think of it today).

    Line 25

    Oh, from out the sounding cells,

    • We love Poe, but sometimes he goes a little crazy with the vocabulary. It's part of his charm, really. Don't worry, we'll help you out: the sound is coming from the echoing insides of the bells ("the sounding cells").

    Line 26

    What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!

    • The music of the bells comes out in a "gush" (notice how this word connects to the music being "molten" in line 20 and "liquid" in line 22).
    • The speaker describes the sound as "a gush of euphony." Euphony means pleasant, harmonious sound, which really fits the themes in this section.
    • The sound also flows out "voluminously," which basically just means there's a lot of it. (Think of a large volume of something.)
    • The rich, round sound of these words picks up the mellow tones of the golden bells.

    Lines 27-28

    How it swells!
    How it dwells

    • The sound of the music "swells" and "dwells." In the next line, we learn that the music is dwelling on the future. But the sound of these lines is just as important as the meaning of the words. Poe is playing with words here, enjoying this rhyme, letting these words fly out like musical notes.

    Lines 29-30

    On the Future! how it tells
    Of the rapture that impels

    • The speaker of the poem seems obsessed with the idea that these bells have a message for us about the future.
    • In lines 3 and 17, he told us about how the ringing of bells "foretells" what is about to come. Here he comes back to that idea, and lets us know that the bells are telling us about the "rapture" that will come in "The Future."
    • Since these golden bells are wedding bells, we're getting the feeling that the music is predicting a happy marriage.

    Lines 31-34

    To the swinging and the ringing
    Of the bells, bells, bells,
    Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
    Bells, bells, bells--

    • If you thought the narrator went overboard with the repetition at the end of the last section, get a load of this. Here he uses the word bells ten times in just three lines.
    • Now, when you're ringing bells to celebrate a wedding, you would ring them a lot, just like this. The clangs would pile up in just this way.
    • Still, we think there's something a little kooky about this repetition.

    Line 35

    To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

    • Just like in the first section, we finish on a calm, cheerful note, listening to the "rhyming and the chiming" of the bells. Like in the rest of this section, the mood is upbeat and the speaker emphasizes harmony and happiness.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 36-37

    Hear the loud alarum bells--
    Brazen 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.

    Line 38

    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.

    Lines 39-40

    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.

    Lines 41-42

    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.

    Line 43

    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.

    Lines 44-45

    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).

    Line 46

    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.

    Lines 47-48

    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.

    Lines 49-50

    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.

    Line 51-52

    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.

    Line 53

    Of Despair!

    • 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.

    Lines 54-55

    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.

    Line 56

    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…

    Lines 57-59

    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.

    Line 60

    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.

    Lines 61-64

    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.

    Line 65

    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.

    Lines 66-68

    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.

    Line 69

    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.
  • Stanza 4

    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.