Context Matters…Even to Good Readers

An excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Bells” has been in quite a few of the anthologies I have used over the years…and I have hated it every time I read it. Enough with the bells, already I would think as I flipped the page to the next poem. In case you’ve never read it:

               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!

Can’t stand the poem.

That is until this past weekend. My daughters and I spent an afternoon creating a container herb garden. My oldest was so proud of herself that later that evening, she decided to name her plants.  When she called one Poe, the English teacher in me came out and we headed to the computer to hunt down some of the older Poe’s work.

My daughter, however, is only four. While I’m a proud mommy and think my lovely girl to be smarter than the average gardener, I wasn’t so sure dead girlfriends, spooky ravens or dead yet beating hearts were really appropriate. The only poem I could think of was…”The Bells.” Dang.

When I searched for the poem, I found this: a five section epic describing all different types of bells, giving each of them their own characteristics and emotions. I had never read the entire poem before, or even known you could write such a lengthy poem on bells, but here it was before me. Suddenly, the stupid little poem from my anthology was part of a carillon masterpiece. The vocabulary and the way Poe  created an entire poem that mimics the sound of bells was amazing. It still isn’t my favorite poem, but to see the tiny (and poorly chosen) excerpt back in its original place made a lot more sense to me.

Context matters – even to good readers. That was my lesson for my students today.

They still think it’s a little too much with the bells, though.

Links I used in today’s lesson:

  • Poets.org – great site for finding American Poets, some even have recordings of readings.
  • Librivox – readings of famous literary words. Thanks @wmchamberlain. “The Bells” is really hard to read over and over again.
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