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Symbols and Senses in Poe and Blake

Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells and William Blake’s London lead readers on a sensory journey. Apart from the purely chronological unfolding of the two poems, there is the more immediate effect of sensory symbols and imagery. The poets succeed through interacting with the senses of sight and/or sound with known qualities, coupled with commonplace and clear metaphoric images to exact reader’s understandings and imaginations. In its general effect, Poe’s The Bells reaches out to the reader through sense of hearing. This is approaching the whole of the poem itself, as it varies very slightly from that approach.

Through use of word choice and line rhythm coupled with clear symbolic images, Poe manages to place the readers directly into the familiar contexts that he has chosen. In contrast, Blake’s London concerns itself both with being heard and seen as well. It appeals to a wider set of senses. This is crucial because of the short length of the poem London. With such limited words, the most must be made of them. Blake also sticks with very well known and experienced sensory images to immediately reach his audience. There is very little use of subtle metaphor.

The first stanza of The Bells offers the first sensory exposure to the reader. It is the bells themselves – and they are pleasant to be heard. The creation of this picture is begun in the mind with a clear metaphoric symbol to give it context. In this case, it is the silver bells. This type of bells automatically registers with the reader as happiness and celebration. Additionally, the word choices and rhythms continue this. Jingling and tinkling are onomatopoeic for the sounds of happy bells and celebration. This combined with the word musical complete the sounds of celebration and happiness.

Now in stanza two, Poe turns to more mature happy images to be heard. The symbols are of gold, which is a more serious version of joy. The bells ring to be heard, but this time not of a nearly immature jingling but of a ring of delight and happy satisfaction. This time the rhythms are of a beautiful procession, slow and steady and filed with anticipatory words. Future and rapture used in consecutive lines provide a smooth march tempo that is serious without being somber and the words look to the future with hope. By stanza four, Poe’s poem begins to turn serious.

The sounds are different, now. The bells are loud. This time he uses the symbol of alarum bells (what we would now hear as a tornado siren or a fire engine) to catch the attention and imagination of the reader. It prepares them to hear the sounds of startled screaming, turbulence, clamor, clashing and roaring. There is no letting up. The sound is a cacophony to assault the hearing of the reader. The word choice, too, is vastly different. To be simple, the choices are ugly. Jangling and wrangling, though they rhyme are just not beautiful, smooth sounds when read aloud. They are arresting.

The final stanza finishes out the loud sounds as the poem turns somber. The symbol or metaphor chosen is iron bells which do not signify joy or happiness but instead solemn occasions. The reader does not get to hear much now, but silence and nighttime. The bells now are described as tolling…a repetitive note which does not inspire. The only other sounds for the reader to experience personally are throbbing and sobbing. That is how things end. Blake’s poem London accomplishes much the same as Poe’s and it is best to contrast it with The Bells in a stanza by stanza purpose.

It, too, reaches out to the senses, but uses sight and sound concurrently to achieve its goals more concisely. For example, in stanza one, readers are presented only with the sound of the Thames as it flows, and the sights of woe on men’s faces. The sound of the river as it moves monotonously along remind the reader how time slips along uncontrollably, while the marks of weakness on the faces reinforces the inability they have to stop this passage. Stanza two is no less miserable. Now there is crying to be heard.

The crying of infants, which could be joyful are now doleful because they are immediately united with the crying of men. And the sight (in the mind) and the sound of iron manacles show the continued theme of the impotence of men in their environment. London continues the cries in stanza three but now unites them with sighs of soldiers, a mixed and inharmonious blend of sorrow and pain. The readers’ senses are being assaulted relentlessly. The short lines that Blake uses only quicken the pace of pain and despair by returning to these sensory symbols over and over and over.

There is more to be seen in stanza three, as well, now with the colors of despair (black’ning of churches) and pain (red blood on the Palace walls). Finally stanza four of Blake’s work terminates the suffering unhappily. There is the infant’s tear again – which reminds us once more of the potential in that cry – but douses that hope with its being tied to the curse of a harlot. The reader who had still held out hope now has it dashed by this return to the crying metaphor. The final sensory image appealing to sight is that of a hearse, symbolically death marching right through the streets.

Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells and William Blake’s London are successful, symbolic sensory poems. They succeed because of their concentrated efforts at reaching the readers with sights and sounds, while providing symbolic images for the mind to connect these elements to. ? Works Cited Blake, William. “London. ” Blake: Selected Poems. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1996. Print. Poe, Edgar A. “The Bells. ” The Complete Poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

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