The Tintinnabulation and the Muffled Monotone | By Navneet Khinda

Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry has, since I first discovered his brilliance in 10th grade, gripped my imagination; it leaves me with a feeling of mystery and, at once, a sense of both the familiar and the anomalous.

The Bells is a beautiful and dark poem. The motif of four – four metals (silver, gold, brass, iron) and four seasons represent what could be four stages of life; four expressions in a range of human emotion. It’s a rhythmic thriller where the mood gets darker, the sections get longer, and the speed quickens; symbolic of life itself. As we grow old, some would say we tend to grow somewhat morose and cynical. Our experience with pain deepens. Youth is fleeting.

The hypnosis of life we experience is enduring in this poem. Have you ever been through a period of time where you’re just drifting or observing the world around you? The resounding sound of the bells elicits this feeling of detachment.

This is a poem you must read aloud to experience. And when you do, you will grasp the depth of the onomatopoetic brilliance in this piece.

When I read The Bells, I imagine being young and walking in a daze. It’s a crisp and sunny winter day, at a time of year when the days are shorts and the nights long. The tinkling of the “crystalline bells” can be heard in the distance, keeping time to my thoughts and evoking in me memories of joy. The “Runic rhyme” brings images of memories past, and then creeps forth nostalgia for things I’ve not seen, people I’ve not met. Yet with that comes a sort of blithe hopefulness about the possibilities of what the future holds. Perhaps it is a bleak sort of happiness I feel. It is a bitter-sweet time, for this naivety, where the “heavens seem to twinkle”, will not last.

And then a moment of utter joy and harmony settles upon you; a moment unlike all others, appears at a momentous time in your life. What is it? Love? Only you would know. You’re at the pinnacle, or so it seems, the apex of your journey.

But that’s all it is – an apogee. A culmination. The ne plus ultra of your existence. For after the melodic swelling of the bells come the brazen bells. And it is sudden too – we can’t foretell when or where our fall shall be. In an instant, life can turn into “a mad expostulation”. The bells deafen, the terror swells. Where are you now? Imagine the beating of your heart quickening, the pulse palpitating through your veins, your breathing sharper.

And more violent it grows. And in sets the melancholy, the loneliness, as we approach the monody – the requiem of existence.

It’s haunting, truly. Poe’s recreation of these intervals in life is not sanguine, to say the least. We begin in a world of merriment, only to be found in a terrible present. And in the end, you are a king of the ghouls, keeping time to the throbbing of the bells.

For some, this poem highlights what may be a reality in which the tintinnabulation culminates in a muffled monotone of existence. It is strikingly vivid and speaks volumes, not simply with the words, but with the simple sounds of bells.


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.

For a breathtaking reading of this poem, click here.


Navneet has recently rediscovered her love of poetry, especially that of the somewhat macabre Mr. Poe. Here’s an excellent quote attributed to him which you can ponder: “Sometimes I’m terrified of my heart; of its constant hunger for whatever it is it wants. The way it stops and starts.”

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  • AS

    Every so often I remember why I like poetry. Thanks for the fresh reminder.