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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sunday Poetry VII: A Carroll on Poe's "BELLS" -- sort of

Professor Eric Rabkin, of University of Michigan, has a significant contribution included in The Teaching Company's The Great Courses series, entitled Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature's Most Fantastic Works.

I bring up the good doctor's course here because it's the bridge between two things, both of which seem appropriate right now, considering both the season and our current book: the season, of course, is Christmas (yes, it's still Christmas, as far as I'm concerned, at least until I manage to get back to work), and the book is Bronte's Jane Eyre.  What do you get when you mix the two?  Easy: Eric Rabkin's discussion of E.A. Poe's poem "The Bells" (not that the poem is particularly Christmas-y, but, you know...  "Bells," as in "Carrol of the Bells," or "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day") and, though less so, his short story, "The Black Cat."

So here's what we're going to do.  I will posit two definitions, I will quote the poem, and then I will copy out the appropriate course notes from Rabkin's Poe lecture.

parataxis -- (from Greek for 'act of placing side by side'; fr. para, beside + tassein, to arrange; contrasted to syntaxis) is a literary technique, in writing or speaking, that favors short, simple sentences, without the use of coordinating or subordinating conjunctions.  (Etymonline.com; Wikipedia.org)
hypotaxis -- is the grammatical arrangement of functionally similar but "unequal" constructs (hypo="beneath", taxis="arrangement"), i.e., constructs playing an unequal role in a sentence.  (Etymonline.com; Wikipedia.org)

Not terribly helpful.  Here's Rabkin's explanation:

Hypotaxis: In rhetoric, making explicit and underlying connections among distinct elements of the text or utterance.  For example, "I am hungry.  I need to obtain food.  I can buy food at the store.  I will go to the store to buy food to eat."  Compare that with "I am hungry.  I'll go to the store."  In the latter example, one presumes that the store sells food, but one could be wrong.  The speaker could have changed topics.  Leaving out the underlying connections is parataxis.  Excessive hypotaxis can be boring, but excessive parataxis can leave a reader confused: "I am hungry.  Now I'll call Fred."  Does the call have to do with the hunger?

The Bells  (It actually helps if you read this out loud.)
by Edgar Allan Poe


     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 clanging 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: -
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.


From Rabkin's course notes:

"The Bells" (1849) is famously derided for offering more sound than sense.  However, a careful reading of its four stanzas, and a comparison of them to "The Black Cat," shows that these works move the reader through a common psychological trajectory.
  1. "The Black Cat" is hypotactic, meaning that the connections among its parts are made explicit.
  2. "The Bells" is a paratactic version of the same story, parataxis being the presentation of a tale with key connections omitted.  This economical presentation, if it works for a reader, induces the reader to construct imaginatively the missing connections and, thus, to feel them personally.
  3. Poe's achievement in many genres is to induce fear, yet to know that we are in a fantastic world created by a precise and skillful artist, a world we need not flee but can admire.
The comparison between the poem and the story are striking.  Got some Sunday down time augmented by the typical post-Christmas lull?  Read the story (here), reread the poem.  Bingo.


  1. Finally got a chance to read these. The connection is interesting, but isn't this sort of the descent of any person who's losing his mind? Of course Poe tells it a lot better than anyone else does. I had never read either of these. I really love "The Black Cat". Of course it takes a real idiot for the ending to come to pass, but it's still really awesome stuff. One of the things I love about "The Black Cat" is the issue of reader reliability. He as much as tells us at the beginning that he doesn't expect us to believe him, but that admission almost (oddly enough) builds trust in the storyteller who, by the end, is telling a truly fantastic story and, by his own admission, is crazy. Is this demonic cat real, or is it a figment of his imagination? I don't think we ever really figure out. Anyway, I had a great time reading it. Good recommendation.

  2. It took a long time, but eventually I even found similar enjoyment in "Bells." Try deleted all the tintabulation and just look at the story of it. The steps of the story represented by the material of the bells.

    Interesting, if nothing else.

  3. ...loves stories each, when you get right down to the bottom of them.


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