The Bells

The Bells – by Edmund Dulac

“One of the finest folk songwriters around

 today is, of course, Edgar Allan Poe..”

 – Phil Ochs, Swarthmore, 1964

The Bells 

Edgar Allan Poe was born plain old Edgar Poe in Boston, MA in January 1809, the son of actors whose reputation the young Edgar struggled to shake off. Nothing is known of his father after the year of Edgar’s birth (though he is rumoured to have died sometime in 1810, one of many of Poe’s family to suffer from consumption) and his mother struggled to keep her young family together in his absence for two years before dying in 1811 aged 24.

Poe was taken into the care of a Mr and Mrs John Allan of Richmond, Virginia, though never legally adopted. His relationship with Mr Allan in particular came to help to cause much of the misfortune of Poe’s life. Relatively wealthy the Allan’s afforded Edgar some comfort and decent schooling, both in Virginia and Irvine in Scotland and five years boarding at Stoke Newington in England, where Poe was known as Edgar Allan.

The death of an uncle brought real wealth to Mr Allan, coinciding with a diminishing interest in his foster son. A short time in the University of Virginia at Charlottesville (known at the time as “The Oxford of the New World”) without the financial support of Mr Allan, saw Poe quickly become saddled with debts, exacerbated by gambling and a drink problem supposedly inherited from his father. Unable to pay off his gambling debts he was duly expelled.

His first volume of poetry was published in Boston in 1827, though almost entirely without acclaim nor any income generated.  Indeed, even with acclaim and notoriety that would follow, Poe would struggle to turn such acclaim into a living wage.  Such problems may have encouraged his decision to join the U.S Army where, though he was unwilling to talk nor write about it for much of his life, he was quite a success, staying sober and rising to the rank of Sergeant Major. Tired of Army life and unable to buy himself out, and still without financial support from Mr Allan, his release from the Army saw him further indebted.

After a spell in Baltimore, the city with which he is most associated (The Baltimore Ravens NFL team are named after Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’ and just to be clear, their mascot is a big raven named Poe), he then enlisted for a short spell at West Point Military Academy, where again unhappy and unable to buy himself out got himself expelled through bad behaviour.

The next few years of his life brought real struggle. In a letter to, a by now almost totally uncaring, Mr Allan saw him write “For God’s sake, pity me and save me from destruction”. Poe was left out of Mr Allan’s will when he died in 1834.

In 1833 however Poe won a $50 prize in a short story competition in the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. This stroke of fortune would see the beginning of a career that would bring Poe great acclaim, but little financial reward. Though his talent was obvious, he struggled to find a way to make his talent profitable, a situation made harder by the continued ill health of his wife. During times of intense creativity he was unable to earn a living – his creativity came at a personal price. He seemed particularly adept at growing tired of whatever comfort and financial security he managed to work towards, instead throwing into poverty, heartbreak and some of the greatest story-telling of the 19th century.


Arthur Hobson Quinn wrote that “the mystery so often associated with Poe’s life and nature is unjustified”. A mythical shroud has come to cover his life, not helped by the mystery surrounding the last week or so with his life. Following the death of his first wife after a long struggle with consumption (a condition that worsened swiftly after bursting a blood vessel whilst singing), he was due to remarry in October 1949. A visit to New York in late September ended with Poe in Baltimore, apparently after taking the wrong train. Six days later he was found in a public house unable to explain his shocking condition. He died a few days later at the age of 40.

Quinn continues that quite apart from the stories that continue to circulate around his life Poe was really just a “hard-working man of letters”. Accounts from friends and colleagues see Poe described variously as “a quiet, patient, industrious, and most gentlemanly person” and “one of the most courteous, gentlemanly, and intelligent companions I have met”. Poe’s fame as a writer of horror-fiction has somehow seeped into the public’s perceptions of him – but his work was not all horrific, and his life was certainly not all drama. Indeed his reputation as a drinker seems harsh considering that he couldn’t handle even smallest amount of alcohol, though that didn’t stop him from trying of course, in part at least to help him cope with his manic-depressive nature (much as Phil Ochs would late in his life). A poem like ‘The Bells’ is testament to the broad nature of his works, and though Poe’s critics would deny it, the power of his poetic talent.

The Bells – by Edmund Dulac

Poe defined poetry as the “Rhythmical Creation of Beauty”, a statement that would have struck a chord with Phil. Poe wrote that “with me, poetry has not been a purpose but a passion”. He may well have had yet more commercial success had he had some luck in his personal life and stayed sober, issues that also dealt a blow to his political ambitions.

Phil wasn’t the first person to set ‘The Bells’ to music (Rachmaninoff’s Opus 35 – ‘Kalokola’, written in 1913, contains Poe’s poem translated into Russian by Konstantin Balmont, albeit loosely) nor would he be the last. The fact that ‘The Bells’ was originally printed as ‘The Bells – a song’ suggests that this is no coincidence.

Wolf Mankowitz’s biography of Poe contains an account of the writing of ‘The Bells’, gleaned from Hervey Allen’s reading of the diary entries of a lady-friend of Poe’s, Marie Louise Shew from early 1848;

“Poe and Mrs Shew retired to a little conservatory overlooking a garden, where they had tea. He complained to his hostess that he had to write a poem, but had no inspiration…while they sat there, the sound of church bells filled the air, and fell almost like a blow of pain on Poe’s hypersensitive ears and jangled nerves. He pushed the paper away saying, ‘I dislike the noise of bells to-night, I cannot write. I have no subject, I am exhausted”. Mrs Shew then wrote on the paper, “The bells, the little, silver bells” – and Poe finished a stanza, again almost relapsing into a state of coma. Mrs Shew then urged him again, beginning a stanza with “The heavy iron bells”. Poe finished two more stanzas…after which he was completely unable to proceed…”

Poe’s original version ran to only 17 lines, later expanded to 112 lines over four verses, first published in Sartain’s Union Magazine of Literature and Art in November 1849, a month after Poe’s death. It one of the last poems Poe would complete. Considering the circumstances of its writing (initially at least) it is a remarkably vibrant poem, based wholly around the utter joy of words, a celebration of  poetry and of the English language itself.

Much like it is a rather surprising piece to come from a writer famed for his gothic horror writing, it is also something of a surprising choice of poem for Phil, famed as he is for his topical protest songs. Phil plays upon this incongruity when he played it in Montreal in October 1966 (captured for posterity as ‘The FBI Tapes’) teasing the audience by saying “one of the finest of the protest writers living today is of course [pause for effect]…Edgar Allan Poe.  Some has gone so far as to call him the ‘Father of the New Left’. But they stopped because he drank too much…We used to sit around and drink a lot, Eddie and I…

Upon reading the full Poe piece, minus Phil’s alterations, it becomes far more typically Poe, with its fourth verse containing lines such as “They are neither man nor woman, They are neither brute nor human, They are Ghouls: And their king it is who tolls” wholly absent from Phil’s adaptation. It would remain part of Phil’s live repertoire right up until 1975, including a memorable version in Vancouver in March 1969 with Allen Ginsberg accompanying Phil on bells.

This would be the first of three poems that Phil would set to music (the others being Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman and John Rooney’s The Men Behind The Guns, both released on I Ain’t Marching Anymore). All three would be heavily adapted (in the case of The Men Behind The Guns the words actually altered) and all three absolute successes, proving that there was more to Phil than just a singing journalist.

The changes Phil made to his version of The Bells are illustrated below;

‘The Bells’ by Edgar Allan Poe (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 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

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 clamor and the clangor of the bells!


Hear the tolling of the bells

Iron Bells!

What a world of solemn thought their monody


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;

And he rolls, rolls, rolls,


A paean from the bells!

And his merry bosom swells

With the paean of the bells!

And he dances, and he yells;

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the paean 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.


The  Bells by Edgar Allan Poe, adapted by Phil Ochs (1964)


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

All the heavens seem to twinkle

With a crystalline delight

Keeping time, time, time

With a sort of Runic rhyme

From 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

Through the dances and the yells

And the rapture that impels

How it swells

How it dwells

On the future

How it tells

From the swinging and the ringing of the molten golden bells

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

bells, bells, bells

Of the rhyming and the chiming of the bells







Hear the loud alarum bells

Brazen bells

What a tale of terror now their turbulency tells

Much too horrified to speak

Oh, they can only shriek

For all the ears to know

How the danger ebbs and flows

Leaping higher, higher, higher

With a desperate desire

In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire

With the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells

With the clamor and the clanging of the bells


The Bells – Edmund Dulac

Phil kept in “tintinnabulation” (basically the posh word for bell-ringing) and “monody”( a mournful ode) but skipped the opportunity of singing “euphony” (a pleasing sound) and “expostulation” (to remonstrate or discuss).  It’s not often one would get the chance to sing “In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire”, a line that I would also suppose difficult to fit into Phil’s otherwise wonderfully apt melody.

During that Vancouver show with Ginsberg Phil introduced the song saying; “Certain poems are really songs in disguise. Poe wrote a poem called ‘The Bells’ based a lot on the sound of words” and adding at its end “that’s a poem you might have suffered through in high school poetry class but there’s life to it…” And you know what? Phil gave it new life, doing justice to Poe and his work.

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One thought on “The Bells

  1. Casey Graham says:

    “The word is tintinnabulation! They couldn’t find it in the dictionary, so they thought it stood for LSD!”

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