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, …”
— Edgar Allan Poe, “The Bells”
There is perhaps no greater master of the macabre than Edgar Allan Poe, who was as gifted in evoking the spine-chilling thrills of horror in his poetry as in his ghoulish stories. A central figure of Romanticism in American literature, Poe was the first well-known American writer to earn his living solely from his pen.
Most high school students have come across “The Raven” on their syllabuses at some point before graduation, but Poe composed many other equally haunting and engaging poems. Those of us who are novices at reading poetry can be frustrated when a poem doesn’t have an easy rhythm and rhyme. Poe not only delivers those elements in spades, but he also creates vivid depictions of the stories he weaves together, making them extremely satisfying to read.
“The Bells” is one such poem that fully engages the readers’ senses, most especially of sound. The energy and rhythm of the verses match the various scenes painted by the words, which themselves seem to ring, chime, clang, and toll in succession as he moves from sleigh bells to wedding bells, alarm bells, and then finally, to funeral bells. This poem is heavily onomatopoeic, which is the term for a word that sounds like its meaning (e.g., “tinkle” or “roar”), so it is like the reader hears the scenes play out as well as watches them. The four stanzas symbolize the major milestones of human experience — childhood, youth, maturity, and death.
“Annabel Lee” was the last poem Poe composed before he died. Like many of his poems, it tells of the death of a beautiful woman. The narrator, Annabel’s lover, describes a mutual devotion so powerful and passionate that even the angels in heaven are envious and thus whisk Annabel away from him. The speaker has often been assumed to be Poe himself as his young wife died about two years before he wrote it.
The poem opens, “It was many and many a year ago, / In a kingdom by the sea, / That a maiden there lived whom you may know /By the name of Annabel Lee; / And this maiden she lived with no other thought / Than to love and be loved by me.” These first verses establish the magical, fairy tale nature of their romance, and as the poem progresses, the narrator insists on the rarity of a love that will remain alive even in the face of death, so sure is he that his soul will never be separated from hers.
Calla Editions’ lavish hardcover volume, containing many of Poe’s most beloved poems, is a reproduction of one originally published in 1912 with 28 color illustrations by Edmund Dulac, who is considered the premier artist of the “Golden Age” of book illustration in the 19th and early 20th century. His paintings, which capture Poe’s romantic longing that permeates his verses, and the large, clothbound cover combine to make reading this edition a pleasurable experience for all the senses.