Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “The Bells,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 429-441 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 429:]


“The Bells,” a great popular favorite, is one of the finest specimens of onomatopoetic verse in English. Although it was one of the two major poems of Poe that did not appear during his life time, it was begun in 1848, and the circumstances of its genesis and growth are known in great detail.

It has been shrewdly conjectured that the impulse to write the piece came from a copy of the Union Magazine for April 1848 (current after March 15), where the editor, Mrs. Caroline Kirkland, quoted with approval a paragraph from the Literary World: “A poem of twenty lines, spirited, intense, and exuberantly suggestive alike to feeling and to thought, is ... of a higher order than an epic of twenty books.” The lady, for all that she had rejected “Ulalume,” sometimes bought Poe's verses, and he seems to have wished to take up her challenge.

Marie Louise Shew Houghton told the story to Ingram in a long letter written between January 23 and February 16, 1875.(1) According to her account, one day the poet came to visit her in New York where she lived, as a widow, at 47 Bond Street, the home of her brother-in-law, Dr. Joel Shew, and said, “I have to write a poem; I have no feeling, no sentiment, no inspiration.” Tea was “served in the conservatory”(2) and the poet remarked, “I so dislike the noise of bells to-night, I cannot write. I have no subject — I am exhausted.” His hostess then “took up the pen, and, pretending to mimic his style, wrote, ‘The Bells, by E. A. Poe’; and then ... ‘The Bells, the little silver Bells,’ Poe finishing off the stanza. She then suggested for the next verse, ‘The heavy iron [page 430:] Bells’; and this Poe also expanded into a stanza. He next copied out the complete poem, and headed it, ‘By Mrs. M. L. Shew,’ remarking that it was her poem; as she had suggested and composed so much of it.” Poe then went to bed and slept for twelve hours.

It is generally assumed that the day on which there was much ringing of bells was a Sunday. But it was the custom when there was a fire to toll all neighboring church bells simultaneously, and it has been suggested that such an occasion was what jarred on Poe's nerves.(3) At any rate, we are on firmer ground in locating some of the bells near the home of Mrs. Shew.(4) There were nearby bells at Bartholomew's (of which Mrs. Shew was a communicant), St. Luke's, St. John's, St. Mark's in the Bowery, and the Bleecker Street Presbyterian Church. But there was (and is) an outstandingly important bell, actually called the Silver Bell, in the belfry of the Middle Collegiate Church at 50 East Seventh Street at Second Avenue. This bell was cast in Amsterdam in 1729, and citizens of the Dutch city contributed silver coins for its alloy. It was given to the Old Middle Dutch Church by the family of Abraham De Peyster. When the church moved uptown to Seventh Street, the bell was for several years kept in the vestibule, until Samuel Ward, banker and poet, defrayed the cost of hanging it in time for its tolling on Easter 1848. It is still used.(5) Other bells, sometimes called Poe's inspiration, have less valid claims (although he heard most of them before writing the final version of his poem).(6) The bells at the chapel of what is now Fordham University are called Poe's bells in local tradition. [page 431:]

Later Poe revised the little poem, expanding it slightly, and sold it to the Union Magazine for fifteen dollars. On February 8, 1849, he wrote to Mrs. Richmond that two days previously he had written a poem longer than “The Raven” called “The Bells,” which might appear in the American Review. Since “The Raven” has 108 lines, this version of “The Bells” must have been practically complete. When Poe visited Mrs. Richmond in Lowell during the last week of May, he recited it to a Reading Club (including Annie's sister Sarah Heywood) at nearby Westford, Massachusetts.(7) Poe returned with his new version to what had now become Sartain's Union Magazine, and received twenty-five dollars more. He got the poem back again some time later, revised it slightly, and received five dollars as final payment — a total of forty-five dollars.(8)

In Sartain's for December, John S. Hart printed an editorial account of the history of “The Bells,” headed “Edgar A. Poe,” in which he said, “There is a curious piece of literary history connected with this ... It illustrates the gradual development of an idea in the mind of a man of original genius. The poem came into our possession about a year since. It then consisted of eighteen lines!” He then proceeded to publish them as I give them in the present edition, and explained how he had received two later enlarged versions.

There is no doubt that Mrs. Shew's suggestion had prompted the writing of the first little versions of “The Bells.” But at most she had only awakened an idea dormant in Poe's mind. He had long been interested in bells and chimes, which have an important part in his grotesque sketch “The Devil in the Belfry” and in his highly poetic tale of “The Masque of the Red Death.” There [page 432:] is a pertinent remark in his review in Burton's Magazine, August 1839 (5:116), of William Wallace's poem, The Triumphs of Science; from it Poe quotes a line, “Six thousand years the Bell of Time had tolled,” and adds “An every-day poetaster ... would never have dared to dream that there existed ... the spirit-lifting and memory-stirring bell.” This interest is what led to the expansion of Poe's little song into a long poem, in which Poe seems to me to have followed the plan suggested by Professor Bronson, as Mrs. LeDuc said (in her memorandum quoted above in the notes on “Ulalume”) — a composition for recitation to exemplify the most varied emotions.

There had been countless poems on the subject. Who can forget “Those Evening Bells” by Thomas Moore, or “The Bells of Shandon” by Francis Mahony (“Father Prout”)? And the subject was popular with Poe's contemporaries in America.(9) Like A. H. Quinn (Poe, p. 564) I think Poe owed little or nothing to them.

Some readers may recall seeing a very different account from the foregoing of how Poe wrote “The Bells.” It is certainly fictitious, but of so pleasant a kind that it is synopsized here in a footnote.(10) [page 433:]

When “The Bells” was published in Sartain's for November, issued about October 15, 1849, little more than a week after the author's death, the poem was an instantaneous success. N. P. Willis wrote, for a reprint in his Home Journal, October 27, 1849, one of those introductions the poet valued so highly:

Poe's Last Poem. The Union Magazine for November contains the following remarkable poem by the late Edgar A. Poe. We do not know of a piece of fugitive poetry in the English language that will be more likely to be more generally read. Its rhythmical harmony is perfect, and its tone, throughout, fit and sustained.


(A) Manuscript written in early May 1848 in the hands of Marie Louise Shew and Poe, probably lost but presumably like the next item; (B) the holograph fair copy made immediately by Poe, printed by J. H. Ingram in Chandos Classics Poetical Works of ... Poe (London and New York, 1888), p. 31, facsimiled in auction catalogue of Frank J. Hogan Collection (New York, January 23-24, 1945), lot 566, and now in the Koester Collection at the University of Texas; (C) manuscript, sold late in 1848, now presumably lost but text printed in Sartain's Union Magazine for December 1849 (5:386-387); (D) manuscript of a long version, written February 6, 1849, sold to Sartain, possibly lost, but in my opinion actually the next item before final changes; (E) manuscript in final revised form, sold to Sartain in summer of 1849, facsimiled by J. H. Ingram in the London Bibliophile of May 1909 (3:129, 131, 133), and now in the Pierpont Morgan Library; (F) Richmond Examiner proofsheets, summer 1849, reprinted by J. H. Whitty, Complete Poems (1911), pp. 63-66; (G) Sartain's Union Magazine for November 1849 (5:304); (H) New York Home Journal, October 27, 1849; (J) Works (1850), II, 23-26.

Both short versions (B) and (C) are given in full. The long version, by permission of the Trustees of the Pierpont Morgan Library, follows the now incomplete holograph (E) through line 99. This manuscript is somewhat damaged, restored and silked; some of Poe's changes in pencil are now almost illegible. Facsimiles are misleading, since they do not show Poe's final changes in pencil. The rest of the poem is taken from the first printed version (G). When using (E) as copy the printers of Sartain's Magazine took many liberties such as using British spelling for words like “clamour” — which Poe did not use in his later years — and misunderstood some of his changes. The authorized version of Poe's de facto literary executor, Griswold (J), and that (H) of Willis (authorized by implication, since Poe always asked Willis to reprint his major poems), follow the Sartain's text verbally, but with minor emendations in spelling and punctuation. The text presented is very close to that of the “Examiner proof-sheet” as reproduced by Whitty (F), but the anomalous character of that document (which nobody now can find) is notorious. [page 434:]

[page 435, continued:]




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 tintinabulation 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, [page 436:]

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 a 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 [page 437:]



In the bosom of the palpitating air!

Yet the ear, it fully knows,

By the twanging,

And the clanging,


How the danger ebbs and flows: —


Yes, 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 — [page 25:]

Of the bells —

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells —



In the clamor and the clangor 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 menace 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: — [page 438:]



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 — [page 26:]

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.

[July 1849]

[page 438, continued:]

VARIANTS [[to version E/G]]

3  The word What here, and in lines 17, 26, 38, and 72, is italicized plainly in the manuscript (E), but in no printed text save F.

11  The spelling tintinabulation is clear in the manuscript (E) and is used in Griswold's text (J); the spelling tintinnabulation appears in F, G and H.

12-13  Originally bells was written five times in line 12, and twice in line 13. Poe changed this in ink in the manuscript (E). There are similar changes in lines 33-34, and 67-68.

41  Too much / originally Much too but changed by Poe in ink (E).

56   In / On (F, G, H, J)

61  Yes, / misprinted Yet (G, H, J) but correct in F

63  wrangling / tangling (H)

65  anger / first written clamor but changed by Poe in ink (E)

69   clamor / first written anger but changed by Poe in ink (E)

75  meaning was the first reading, changed by Poe to menace in ink but changed [page 439:] back to meaning in pencil (E); this change was overlooked by his printers, hence menace appears in F, G, H, and J.

77  the rust within their / first written out their ghostly and altered in ink (E)

80  They that dwell / first written Who live, altered in ink to They that sleep, and back, in pencil, to the present reading, which is followed in F, G, H, J. The final pencil alteration is now practically illegible.

88  They are Ghouls / originally written as two lines:

But are pestilential carcases disparted from their souls —

Called Ghouls: —

but altered in pencil by Poe (E) and correctly printed in F, G, H, J.

90-91  All printed versions (F, G, H, J) print rolls three times in line 90 and Rolls alone as the next line, but the manuscript (E) does not support this arrangement, and in “The Rationale of Verse” Poe declared a verse of one syllable to be incorrect.

99-112  These lines are not preserved in E, hence G is followed; other printed versions (F, H, J) show no verbal changes.

[page 439, continued:]


1-3  One of the several poems Poe must have seen is a song by “J. D. K.” called “The Merry Sleigh Bell” in the Union Magazine for February 1848, but it shows no close parallels.

5-7  Compare Spenser, “An Hymne in Honour of Beautie,” line 257, where eyes “Doe seeme like twinckling starres in frostie night.”

10  By Runic rhyme, Poe meant a magic spell. Compare Thomas Gray's “Descent of Odin” for mention of the “runic rhyme ... that wakes the dead.” The phrase “Runic rhymes” was also used in “Ode, Addressed to H. Fuseli” by Henry Kirke White. The runes — the earliest alphabets of northern Europe — were often used in magic and divination.

11  Compare Cowper's “Table Talk,” lines 528-529: “Beating alternately, in measured time, / The clockwork tintinabulum of rhyme.” There is a paragraph on bells in the compilation “Omniana” in Burton's for June 1840 (6:289) which mentions that the Romans called bells “Tintin-nabula.” I cannot accept this article as from Poe's pen. The spelling of the English word tintinnabulation has not manuscript authority, and Poe's is the earliest use of the word usually cited in dictionaries, but it has been found (in the form tintinnabulations) in a private letter of William W. Lord, June 11, 1845, published in David A. Randall's “Footnote on a Minor Poet” (Colophon, Autumn 1938, p. 592). I suspect it may come from the publicity of “The Swiss Bell-Ringers” about whom Poe published a skit to the New York Evening Mirror, October 10, 1844.

44-46 and 69  Compare the following lines from “The Bell Song,” based on Schiller's “Lied von der Glocke,” in James Nack's Earl Rupert (New York, 1839), p. 57:

The clamour of dismay

Higher swells and higher;

Loud and loud the bell is rung,

Flies the cry from tongue to tongue,

“Fire! fire! fire!” [page 440:]

Curiosity may well have prompted Poe to look at Nack's version, for the translator was almost completely deaf.

56  Compare Romeo and Juliet, II, ii, 32: “upon the bosom of the air.”

72-75  Compare “An Indian Serenade,” by William Gilmore Simms:

Yet they wake a song of sorrow,

Those sweet voices of the night

Still from grief a gift they borrow,

And hearts shiver, as they quiver,

With a wild and sad delight.

Poe quotes this ballad in full in Burton's for November 1839, from the ninth chapter of The Damsel of Darien.

75  Compare the end of Thomas Hood's sonnet, “Midnight” (1822): “Only the sound of melancholy bells — / The voice of Time — survivor of them all.”

77  Cowper's Task, IV, 104, has (of guns): “Hear the faint echo of those brazen throats.”

80-88  Compare Pope's “Ode for Music on St. Cecilia's Day,” lines 99ff.:

Or where Hebrus wanders,

Rolling in meanders,

All alone,

Unheard, unknown,

He makes his moan;

And calls her ghost,

For ever, ever, ever lost!

88f.  In the canceled line following this in the final manuscript, “disparted” is used. Poe may have recently seen his former friend Lambert A. Wilmer's Somnia (1848), on the opening page of which we read “And from the lowering and disparted mass / Came down the messenger of the Most High.”

89f.  Compare Poe's “Devil in the Belfry”: “There he sat in the belfry upon the belfry-man, who was lying flat upon his back. In his teeth the villain held the bell-rope, which he kept jerking about with his head ... On his lap lay the big fiddle at which he was scraping out of all time and tune.” Poe's story owes a good deal to William Maginn's “The Man in the Bell,” first published in Blackwood's, November 1821, and often reprinted. Poe names it in a letter of April 30, 1835, and in his “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” In it, the narrator, caught in a bell in a steeple, becomes delirious and fancies he sees demons about him.

112  Since Poe's bells were inspired by church bells, it may be appropriate to mention that as early as in McMakin's Model American Courier, Philadelphia, December 15, 1849, a correspondent published a reverent little sequel called “The Sabbath Bells: A Stanza omitted by Edgar A. Poe.” It begins:

Hear the holy Sabbath bells —

Sacred bells!

Oh, what a world of peaceful rest

Their melody foretells! [page 441:]

and continues for twenty-three lines more. It is signed by H. S. Nolen. A copy was sent me by the discoverer, my friend Clarence S. Brigham.


[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 429:]

1  Ingram List, no. 197; recounted by J. H. Ingram, Poe (1880), II, 155-156. There is no reason to doubt any of this, although dislike of Ingram led some of his contemporaries to minimize its importance.

2  This remark helps to date the poem: the Shews moved during the first fortnight of May 1848 from 47 Bond Street to 51 Tenth Street (now 17 West Tenth), where there was no conservatory. See the discussion by a relative, Chauncey C. L. Ditmars, quoted in Phillips, II, 1269. Both houses were still standing in 1968.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 430:]

3  A writer stated in Our Town (New York), March 1961, that there was such a fire on April 30, 1848; but I cannot verify this, and since there was a great fire at Hudson and Bond Streets on April 30, 1833, I suspect some confusion in the matter.

4  I am greatly indebted to the research of Robert Hunter Paterson, who placed his notes, some unpublished, at my disposal.

5  “Silver bells” are in all versions of Poe's poem. In the first version the purpose is not specified, in the second they are wedding bells, in the last they are finally sleigh bells.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 430, running to the bottom of page 431:]

6  Those of the Church of the Ascension, Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street, may be mentioned. Those of Trinity Church, where Poe attended a midnight service on Christmas Eve, 1847, are too far from Bond Street to enter the picture. The bells of Grace Church at Broadway and Tenth are still often pointed out as “Poe's inspiration” [page 431:] but the ones he may have heard there in 1848 were long since replaced by a new set of chimes.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 431:]

7  See Ingram, Poe (1880), II, 188, 189, for statements of Mrs. Sarah Heywood Trumbull. Woodberry's statement in his Life (1909), II, 308, that Poe wrote a draft at Lowell is probably based on a confused version of this story. A reference by Phillips, II, 1295, to a manuscript of “The Bells” in Annie's family also probably represents confusion of memory.

8  I follow John Sartain's Reminiscences (1899), p. 220: he was discussing prices he had paid authors in a way that suggests he was consulting his books. His statements about the intervals between receipt of the versions are not absolutely consistent with those of his editor, John S. Hart, in Sartain's for December 1849.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 432:]

9  Campbell in Poems (1917), pp. 280-281, gives an extensive list, with references and quotations — which could easily be expanded. Woodberry cited a passage in Chateaubriand's Génie du Christianisme, suggesting that a poet should not despise as a subject “a bell tolled by phantoms in the old chapel of the forest”; but the rest of the passage has little in common with Poe, who never mentioned that book of the rhetorical French author. Whitty claimed that Poe told F. W. Thomas he had The Chimes by Dickens in mind, though when and where Poe could have discussed “The Bells” with Thomas is not easy to imagine. Campbell himself quoted unimpressively from “Bells” in the New York Mirror, March 19, 1836. Some resemblance might be found in emphasis on the same bells tolling for wedding and burial in “The Old Chapel-Bell” by John G. Saxe in the Union Magazine for March 1848. And there is an account of a special bell, rung by the angels whenever the unpardonable sin is committed, in chapter xiii of George Lippard's Quaker City — a novel Poe probably glanced through before giving it a perfunctory friendly notice in the Broadway Journal of June 7, 1845.

10  See Phillips, II, 1278-80, following “an old newspaper.” It is said that in Baltimore a young lawyer, later Judge A. E. Giles, was called upon late one evening in November 1848 by the poet, who asked him for pen, paper, and a place to write. Next morning the author presented his host with a duplicate copy of what he had written during the night — “The Bells.” There was a Baltimorean Judge Giles, but his initials were not “A. E.” Two other stories ascribing to other persons the composition of poems by Poe are the Fenwick canard about “The Raven” (see p. 359, n. 17, above) and the tale about the Widow Meagher (p. 511, below). See discussions in American Notes and Queries, August and October 1942 and January 1943.




In version E/G, line 38: What a tale / What tale


[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Bells)