Study Guide

The Bells Themes

  • Fear

    This theme doesn't show up at all until the third section of "The Bells." From that point on, though, it really takes over. Poe explores the sounds and the feelings of fear. He uses all kinds of words to explore the different ways that people can be scared. He spends a lot of time dealing with these kinds of dark emotions, which makes sense because he's definitely one of the grandfathers of the horror genre.

    Questions About Fear

    • Do you think fear takes over completely in this poem? Is the ending hopeless?
    • Is fear a more important part of section three or section four? What's the difference in feeling between these two parts of the poem?
    • Is the night a scary thing in this poem?
    • Do you think "The Bells" is scary? If so, what's the single scariest part, in your opinion?
    • Are there any frightening moments in the first two stanzas of the poem, or is all of the darkness found in the second half?

    Chew on This

    "The Bells" is about the careful balance between terror and joy. The two emotions are intertwined in the poem, and they can never be fully separated.

    The poem's speaker slowly draws us down into a nightmare of insanity and fear, from which we are unable to escape.

  • Death

    Like the other dark elements of "The Bells," death doesn't show up until late in the poem. Even then, it's just lurking in the shadows. In so many Poe poems and short stories, death is front and center, maybe the most important theme of them all. Here it's just a hint, never directly mentioned. Still, we think it's really important. The whole emotional arc of the poem moves relentlessly from happiness, harmony, and possibility to sadness, chaos, and death. Yeah, we get a little dramatic when it comes to Poe, but that's part of the fun, right?

    Questions About Death

    1. Does death have to be a bad thing? Do you feel like it is in this poem?
    2. Do you think section four is about death, a funeral, or something else?
    3. Is there a moment where the speaker addresses the theme of death directly?
    4. Is it possible that this poem describes the arc of a human life, from childhood through marriage to death? Or are we just reading way too much into this?

    Chew on This

    Death is a hidden theme in this poem. It makes its presence felt everywhere, and ties things together, but it never comes out in the open.

    At the end of the final section, the poem itself goes through a kind of death, collapsing into chaos, fear, and endless repetition.

  • Happiness

    Even if death and fear have their place in "The Bells," there's also a lot to smile about. After all, for the first 35 lines, things are going really well – which is really weird for a Poe poem. The whole world seems to be singing with joy and harmony. Poe is almost never cheerful, so we think it's important to point it out. Also, at the end, the ghouls feel some happiness, too, although in this case it's a much darker joy that they get from causing despair.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. Do we see different kinds of happiness in section one and section two?
    2. Can you remember the sounds you heard in a particularly happy moment in your life? Or, if you were going to make a happy soundtrack for yourself, what songs would you include? Would they be similar in mood to Poe's silver and gold bells?
    3. What do you think is the single happiest image or sound or line in this poem? Why do you think so?
    4. At the end of the poem, the ghouls seem to enjoy filling people's hearts with fear. Is that the same thing as happiness, or do we need another name for that?

    Chew on This

    The poem makes it clear that happiness is not just a single feeling. In particular, "The Bells" makes a distinction between excitement and fun, in the sleigh-bell section, and real harmony and joy, in the wedding-bell section.

    By showing us the dark happiness of the ghouls, the poem suggests that feelings of joy are not enough to make happiness. It must be combined with peace and harmony.

  • Art and Culture

    "The Bells" is full of music. The bells ring out all kinds of tunes, and Poe uses musical language to describe them. In a way, the poem itself is almost a piece of music, since it plays with sound, repetition, and rhythm so much. It's no surprise that it's been set to music and even turned into a famous symphony (see our "Best of the Web" section to listen to some examples). Poe is using this poem, in part, to explore the connection between poetry and other kinds of art.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Are there parts of this poem that seem like music to you? Does that change when you read it aloud?
    2. Some readers have accused this poem of being full of tricks, emphasizing games with rhythm and rhyme over real meaning. Do you think that's true? If you agree, do you like this poem less for emphasizing sound over meaning?
    3. Do you think the repetition at the end of the poem is a sign of chaos and disturbance, or just an imitation of the sound of the bells?

    Chew on This

    This poem is as much about sound as it is about meaning. Like the bells, the words of the poem evoke emotion through rhythm and sound as much as through ideas and content.

    "The Bells" is a multifaceted work of art that breaks out of the standard limitations of poetry. Poe does his best to make the poem a visual, rhythmic, and sonic experience, without letting any one of those elements take over.

  • Man and the Natural World

    "The Bells" is not an obvious nature poem. It isn't about snowy woods, daffodils /wandered-lonely-cloud-daffodils/, or a nightingale. When you look again, though, you'll see that the poem is full of images from nature. Take, for example, the night, which is almost like a character in this poem, popping up in each section. Natural images like that help to structure this poem and tie it together, even if they aren't the main focus.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Why do you think we don't meet any individual people in "The Bells"?
    2. What do you think natural objects like the stars and the moon add to this poem?
    3. Do you think the night is a beautiful or terrifying thing in this poem?

    Chew on This

    The poem is focused on the feeling and the experience of sound. Because of this, neither humans nor aspects of the natural world are given central roles.

    As the poem changes, the meaning of the natural world changes. Things like the moon and the night, which had been comforting before, become dark and sinister