The Bells: Edgar Allan Poe
*Assessment of the Poem:
Some critics regard the poem as masterly; other critics regard it as shallow and sing-song. The latter critics–including many 20th and 21st Century poets–tend to eschew rhyming poetry because of its emphasis on form and musicality over substance. It is true that the "The Bells" is highly musical, in keeping with Poe's belief that a poem should appeal to the ear. The Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote a symphony based on the poem. It contains four movements in imitation of the four stanzas of "The Bells," as translated into Russian. Yes, the poem is musical. However, it is not true that it lacks substance, as the analysis on this page attempts to demonstrate.
*Theme: Death ultimately triumphs over life (or, life is a journey toward death). The bells ring joyfully in youth. However, even as they ring, death lurks in the background. For example, in Stanza 1, the narrator hears the tinkling sleigh bells at night (Line 5), meaning the darkness of death (night) is present at the beginning of life. In Stanza 2, the bells ringing in celebration of the wedding resound "through the balmy air of night," meaning the darkness of death is present in young adulthood. In Stanza 3, the bells ring "in the startled ear of night," meaning the darkness of death is present in middle age and later, when fire begins to consume the exuberance of youth. In Stanza 4, the bells ring "in the silence of the night," meaning death has triumphed over life.
*The Bells as Death's Accomplice: In the first stanza, the bells keep time in a "Runic rhyme," a mysterious rhyme that pleases the ear. Thus, the bells become death's accomplice, marking the passing of time–each second, hour, day, year–with beautiful sounds that continue until life ends and the king of the ghouls tolls the death knell (Stanza 4). The ghouls, demons who feed on the flesh of the dead, are happy to welcome death's victims. Their happiness mockingly echoes the joy expressed in the