The Bells by Poe: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Introduction to Poe &…
  • 0:39 Poem Summary
  • 1:07 Poem Analysis
  • 2:40 Poe's Techniques
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

During this lesson, we will study Edgar Allan Poe's poem, The Bells. After looking at a summary of the poem, we will analyze the techniques Poe used to write it and explore the meaning behind the text.

Introduction to Poe & The Bells

Edgar Allan Poe was a famous American poet and short story writer. He wrote mostly in the American Romantic and Gothic styles, which are literary styles known for their physical and emotional passion, as well as supernatural and darker themes. Poe was born in Boston in 1809 and died in 1849 in Baltimore. He traveled around the upper East Coast and lived in the Bronx at one time. During his stay in the Bronx, St. John's College (now known as Fordham University) was built in 1845. It is speculated that the bells in Poe's poem, 'The Bells,' are at least partly inspired by the thunderous St. John's College bells.

Poem Summary

The Bells is divided into four parts. Each part is subsequently longer than the preceding part. For example, the first stanza is only 14 lines. The next stanza is 21 lines. The third stanza is 34 lines, and the last stanza is 43 lines. Each stanza is devoted to the narrator's reaction to a different kind of bell: sledge or sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells and, finally, mourning bells.

Poem Analysis

All of Edgar Allan Poe's works contain a strong emotional core. The Bells is no exception. In fact, because of the progressing stanzas that both lengthen and grow considerably more serious, the narrator's shifting emotional tone in the poem really emphasizes the dramatic aspects of Poe's writing.

For example, in the first stanza, the tone is downright lighthearted as the narrator discusses the 'tinkle' of the bells and the 'twinkle' of the stars. The second stanza, about wedding bells, is still pleasant but slightly more serious than a sledge ride. 'Harmony' is mentioned before the poem transitions into 'rapture.' Harmony is a positive, innocent word, whereas rapture, while positive in this context, can be associated with madness and a stronger intensity that goes beyond simple bliss.

The second half of the poem is even more intense. The third stanza is about alarm bells that 'scream' and are too 'horrified to speak.' The fourth stanza, which describes bells that 'moan,' is more doleful in tone and presents a 'melancholy menace' to listeners that make those who hear the bells 'shiver.'

This progression of the bells lends itself to one of the biggest themes of Poe's writing: madness. What starts out as cheerful delight at hearing the 'tinkle' of bells results in the narrator, by the end of the poem, shivering as he describes the 'menace' of the church bells. This is an extreme emotional shift, but one that often occurs in Poe's works as narrators reveal themselves to be moving rapidly toward complete madness.

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