Bleak December: Religious Fervor in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells"

Daniel Podgorski

Abstract


This paper analyzes the meaning of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells” in terms of Poe’s overlooked use of religious images. Past criticism of the poem is toured and examined, highlighting the shortcomings of critics who have failed to account for the poem’s allusions to and sources from Christian contexts. A prospective reading is then provided which works with those overlooked aspects to make the following case: the bells of "The Bells" do not represent a vague onomatopoeic exercise, but instead figure the fervent celebration of a (likely Christian) religion by its adherents, as observed by the speaker across his life. The speaker's psychological journey is charted from his being proselytized in youth to his coping with doubts about promises of individual immortality in adulthood. This reading is then further supported by considering other poems by Poe (especially "A Pæan," "Lenore," and "The Raven"), wherein this paper demonstrates Poe’s developing attitudes in the 1840s toward the prospect of the afterlife, as well as the implications of his own peculiar conception of a 'material soul.' Ultimately, “The Bells” is shown to be a haunting consideration of mortality as concealed by the same kind of dogmatic thinking which is likely responsible for the poem's specific images going overlooked for so long. 

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