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The Bells
, edgar allan poe’s subtextual acoustic extravaganza

In The Hero’s Two Journeys, Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler talk about stories being divided into an outer journey and an inner journey. The outer journey is the external plot, and the inner journey is what goes on inside the characters. In that sense, the function of the external plot is ultimately to reveal the inner world of the character – the unconscious drives that dictate his or her choices, actions, and decisions.

When we translate a story into film language, we turn the screen into the window that reveals the inner life of the character, and we create that inner space, to a great extent, by selecting the sensory details that mirror the character’s psychological condition. That’s our aim when we choose a type of lighting, when we select a specific camera angle or movement, or when we ask the sound designer to make that wind sound more mournful or those steps more harried and anxious. We’re trying to give physical form to an abstract inner quality.

In a way, then, good screenwriting and good filmmaking is knowing how to tap into the the audience’s perceptual skills in order to get them to experience the character’s inner life first hand. The Bells, which you’ll find at the end of this page, although not a film, is a perfect example of what we can achieve when we understand this.

Being a poem, it uses the many poetic devices that poets use, but that’s not what attracts me so much to this poem. The Bells is a sonic masterpiece. In it, Poe exploits acoustic and psychoacoustic phenomena both to produce a rich sensory and emotional experience in the reader and also to create a sonic texture that evokes mood, emotion, and the psychological states of the poem’s speaker.

The poem is about the death of a wife in a fire (though there are other interpretations). It is a journey in four stanzas. The first one represents the courting stage, the second one the wedding, the third one the fire, and the fourth one the burial. In emotional terms, it takes us from merriment to rapture to fear to painful insanity. Poe creates the emotional and psychological effect of each stanza by manipulating the sound of the bells in a number of ways.

In each stanza, the bells are made of a different metal, each of which gives the sound of the bells a different timbre, which in turn has different psychological effects and connotations. He uses words rich in vowels that emulate this timbre and also the motion and rhythm of the bells. In the first stanza (courting), they’re sledge bells made of silver, and the stanza has lots of short i-sounding words like twinkle, jingle, tinkle. The second stanza (wedding) has golden bells and lots of o-sounding, swelling words like mellow, golden-molten, oh, on, swell, and dwell. In the third stanza (fire), the alarm bells are made of brass and it has lots of twisted a-sounding words that have a kind of disorderly ring to them – twanging, clanging, jangling, wrangling. In the final stanza (burial), the bells are made of iron and the stanza has a lot of fall-sounding words such as sound, tone, throat, ghoul, toll, and roll, suggesting not only a heavy, low-pitched sound but also a kind of descent (the wife’s body into the ditch and the husband into insanity?).

The poem takes place at night. In the first two stanzas, Poe uses atmospheric conditions – which do affect sound – to add ‘colour’ to the ringing of the bells. The first night is icy, giving the sledge bells a crispy sound. The second night is balmy, giving the golden wedding bells a warm tone.

In stanzas three and four he uses (vocal) personification to add character to their sound. In the third stanza, the bells ‘scream out their affright’. In the fourth stanza, ‘every sound that floats from the rust within their throats is a groan’.

Poe uses musical terms to refer to the tone of the bells and the emotional effect this tone has on those who hear the bells. In the first stanza, the melody of the bells foretells merriment. In the second stanza, their harmony foretells a world of happiness. These associations – melody/merriment and harmony/happiness – have a psychoacoustic basis. The two factors that make music pleasing to the ear are melody and harmony, which give sound a coherent structure that our brains like.

In the third stanza, where the fire happens, Poe says, “What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!”. Turbulency in itself is not a musical term, but then he adds, “they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune”, which is a musical term. One requirement for alarm sounds to be effective generally is that they need to be discordant to make us feel distressed and to make us want to get away from them, and therefore from the danger. Our brain doesn’t like random, incoherent sounds. Poe is aiming for that effect in this stanza.

In the fourth stanza, their monody compels a solemn thought and makes the listener “shiver with affright at the melancholy meaning of their tone”. Monody has several meanings. It can refer to a poem lamenting a person’s death, a type of music consisting of only one melodic line, and it can also be used to refer to a monotonous or mournful sound. Genius choice of word, since all apply here.

Finally, there’s the rhythm. As well as most of the other words, Poe uses “bells” repeatedly at the end of each stanza to emulate the rhythmic ringing of the bells, but he does it in a way that adds subjectivity and subtext. The first stanza starts happy, but the constant, almost frantic, repetition of “bells” at the end creates a slight contrast and gives away a neurotic undertone that makes one feel that something’s not quite right. By the fourth stanza, the bells are so manic that they almost evoke images of ghouls circling around, hand in hand, and performing a satanic death dance. This is probably what’s going on inside the speaker’s head. The ringing of the burial bells seems to be making him go insane with pain.

Sound is a powerful communicator. It is in fact the ultimate form of communication, used by most species. If you think about it, we can’t really do with light what we can do with sound. We don’t have a dedicated organ that allows us to emit beams of light and bend them at will to communicate all the complex ideas and emotions that we do with sound, for which we do have a dedicated organ.

This is not a coincidence. Sound has dense levels of information encoded in it, much more than light. We can trick the eye easily. We can get away with recording images at 24 frames per second. But try recording sound at that rate. The ear won’t be fooled.

Accordingly, the brain is very adept at extracting information about the environment and about our emotional states from sound. Poe understood this very well. He knew how to bend sound to emulate the emotional and psychological states of the speaker of this poem, to create a window into his inner world.

I wonder what Poe would say if we asked for some advice on doing this. He’d probably say: “KNOW THY SOUND!”.

As an end note, if you’ve read the poem, did you notice how each stanza starts with the speaker inviting you to HEAR?

What is Poe up to here? Any thoughts?

The Bells, by Edgar Allan Poe

I

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.

II

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!

III

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!

IV

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,
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.

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