Exercise 2.3

The poem I have selected for this exercise is “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, originally published in 1849:


Hear the sledges with the bells–
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.


Hear the mellow wedding bells
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!
From the molten-golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!


Hear the loud alarum bells–
Brazen bells!
What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
Now–now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows ;
Yet, the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells–
Of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
In the clamour and the clangour of the bells!


Hear the tolling of the bells–
Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy meaning of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people–ah, the people–
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All alone,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone–
They are neither man nor woman–
They are neither brute nor human–
They are Ghouls:–
And their king it is who tolls ;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls,
A pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the pæan of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells ;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the pæan of the bells–
Of the bells :
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 ;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
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–
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells. (1)


The poem is highly onomatopoeic, with the use of many words that evoke sounds, and this is what attracted me to it in the first place. The first time I read it, I had the feeling that the poem was about cycles, going through life’s stages from youth to death, covering innocent joy, hopefulness, despair, resignation and sorrow. These stages were all represented by events or activities where we expect, or traditionally would have expected to hear bells.

The second time I read it, I felt that the association between sound and events was the main idea, and what primarily came to my mind was classic conditioning and learning by association, as if the different ways in which bells can sound predetermined how we react, and the emotions we feel. I also have the impression that the signs are all signals on how to interpret events, rather than a reflection of our own or the author’s direct experience (ie the signs (the bells), rather than being in the middle of the action, evoke a chain of feelings and reactions). It all feels detached and third hand.

The third time I read the poem I went line by line slowly to try to decipher if there was any additional connection that I missed. It seems to me now that Poe was probably more pessimistic about this poem that I thought at first. There seems to be a connection between the first and last part of the poem which I had not noted as first. In the last part, Poe derides those who take joy on death. He seems to be  specifically referring to people in here, although he deflects his commentary somewhat to attribute the delirium to their “king”, which I would assume is Death, and proceeds to describe it by using some of the same words used in the first part of the poem, which I consider to be about pure, innocent joy. The overriding sensation I had after this third reading is that reality is always different from our idea of it and that what may seem innocent can turn out to be sinister and vice-versa.

Looking at all the things that I have taken out of this poem, I still think that Poe is trying to talk to us about life’s ups and downs, but he may also be telling us to be on the guard because we tend to react to signs, to what we perceive  (the different ringing of the bells) in ways that somehow are predictable, or driven by stereotypes or prejudice, but not necessarily always right or appropriate, and sometimes these signs may mislead us.

————————————— ooo —————————————

To depict what I took away from the poem, I wanted to make a series of photographs about signs that we could interpret to mean something based on our current experience. These signs will themselves be wrapped around a cycle of life theme, which I have associated to each part of the poem: innocence/enjoyment, growth/success, despair/failure and maturity/death.  In the poem, many of these themes were wrapped by the sounds of the bells, different bells, and these sounds were probably universally understood as signs for what each part of the poem depicted. Everybody at that time knew the sound of bells tolling for death, and the sound of bells on sledges. Nowadays people may no longer know these signs. They may not be able to make such associations, so the signs would need to be updated. What can be a sign that is universally associated with these things?

  • As I said before, the first part of the poem evokes in me a feeling of joy and innocence. It also takes me back to my childhood. I have tried to put in images signs that convey all this: moving swings, toys, laughter
  • Part II of the poem deals with marriage in a literal sense, but I interpret it as encompassing our growth as beings and the potential prosperity that comes with it: becoming educated, taking a profession, earning a living, moving to our own place, starting a family. The signs I have chosen to evoke this include college results, coins, a happy face.
  • Part III of the poem is about a fire in the literal sense, but I have taken it to represent the adversity, despair and failure that we encounter in life so often. The bells used by fire engines in the 19th century have now been replaced by loud sirens and flashing lights, usually in blue. It is also the colour coming from the top of police cars and ambulances. The blue intermittently flashing colour is now associated with emergencies. Blue is also a colour associated with feeling down, depressed and these are feelings associated with despair, loss of hope, which is one of the feelings I have associated with part three. One of the pictures I have taken for this part feature blue light as a sign. Another modern worry, and one that has been in the news quite recently, is excessive debt. One of the images I have taken depicts bills on the post as a sign of this. I also have taken some images here making reference to alcoholism.
  • Part IV of the poem is about death in the literal sense, but to me this is to do with resignation and acceptance of fate. It is about maturity, the twilight years and the inevitable end. The signs I have decided to depict in this part include images of people sleeping, resting hands, medicine. It is also, as I noticed above, indirectly connected with the first part of the poem, not only because the same words are used in both parts, but also in the frantic rhythm that such words evoke. The overarching feelings that both parts evoke are completely different, and yet they are almost the same rhythmically. I have tried to create a connection with the first part by arranging the image of medicine in the same way as I arranged the image of toys in the first part.

8 images were chosen for the final selection, two for each part of the poem. Most of the images I have taken all have an element of deceit or ambiguity: almost all were taken with props or staged. Some of the images selected also try to convey mixed feelings: the third image of a person seemingly happy could also be interpreted as that person being sad or reflective, his facial expression masked by the angle of view. Only a few images were taken straight without interference or modification. This was done in part out of necessity, to implement ideas that came to my mind, but also being conscious of the feeling that I had when reading the poem that not all we see can be trusted and that signs can also be misinterpreted.

The final selection is included below:



(1) Robert Giordano. 2017. The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe – Poestories.com. [ONLINE] Available at: https://poestories.com/read/bells. [Accessed 11 November 2017].




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