I hear the bells a-ringing



My mind refuses to reveal the details of the day that I first read Poe’s poem “The Bells.” I do remember, however, the pleasure of hearing it read out loud and listening to the music of the bells in every line. Most likely it was in my sophomore year of high school. The teacher’s name remains buried beneath the rubble of my memories, but I remember that she was a great lover of words. Although I had some interest in biology, French, and algebra, I loved English class because we were required to read. No one had to require me to read, but English class assignments gave me the perfect excuse to avoid chores or obligations – Sorry, but I have to read this for English class.


Poe’s use of language, first ringing and singing then wrangling and jangling across the page, thrilled me. I loved the words, even the ones I didn’t know yet like tintinnabulation, euphony, and monody. I never forgot the delight of listening to those tinkling silver sleigh bells and the bright golden wedding bells, followed by the clanging bronze alarm bells that led finally and irrevocably to the heavy iron bells tolling death. Poe, of course, could never stop with love and beauty; he had to follow them to their final end. But it was the magic of the words even more than the meaning of the poem that held me and rang in my mind ever after.


A half of a century later, I often think of Poe and his poem. When the world and the whirlwind in my mind are still, especially at night, which is when all of Poe’s bells ring, I hear the tintinnabulation of the bells, ringing and singing in my ear without end. I had hoped six weeks ago, when the ringing first began that it was a temporary aberration of the ear, but it has continued. The official name for this most poetic of conditions is tinnitus, so called since 1684 when it was listed in a medical dictionary as “a certain buzzing or tingling in the ear.”


Like so many conditions and health issues, the only cure is death. Until then, I must learn to manage the sound, ignoring it when I can. When I am busy, I don’t notice it at all. Thankfully, I have discovered dozens of possible illnesses that cause tinnitus. I’m sure I have all of them, so I should stay quite busy, first by diagnosing myself to confirm that I have them, next by keeping vigil by my deathbed, and finally by spontaneously recovering from all of them.


My ear rings! Day and night.

My ear rings! Day and night.

For your reading pleasure, go here to read “The Bells.” Enjoy. May it ring in your mind, but not your ears, forever.


Photos: Large church bell by Cherubino    Small bells by David Blaikie     Three bells by Badseed


24 thoughts on “I hear the bells a-ringing

  1. I thought I had a strange ringing in my ears for a long time. It was a high-pitched sound that grew in volume every time I climbed the stairs. To make a long story short, it turned out to be air in the upstairs toilet pipes. Hence, my medical advice to you is: when you hear the ringing, try flushing the toilet.

  2. Thanks for the Poe! I too fell in love with all the descriptive verbs and nouns, not to mention the rhythms. Phil Ochs’ song celebrates it but perhaps submerges some of the vocabulary’s particularity in its rhythm orgy…
    I too have tinnitus, suddenly and spontaneously started and (so far) without end. Mine is a kind of zzzt-zzzt-zzzt like windshield wipers except in perfect time to, alas, my heartbeat–how’s that back-beat for a hypochondriac? Doctors were baffled, except for the one who confidently proclaimed that I was probably going deaf (so far NOT!). A friend said hers started when she had a cold and stopped suddenly two years later when she turned her head abruptly to the left. I’ve tried doing that with no effect except a crick in my neck…
    Well, best wishes. Enjoy the world of merriment!

    • Sorry to hear that you have it as well. My brother also has it; he’s younger and his started suddenly in a meeting and has never stopped. I’ve read that it’s sometimes related to hearing loss, but like you, I don’t seem to have suffered that yet. I am an incorrigible optimist and keep hoping it will end as spontaneously as it appeared. 🙂

  3. I listened to “something” for five years, because I was told there was nothing to
    be done. I mourned for my loss of silence. Then I got used to it. One day, after we
    had played tennis without warming up enough, my neck was killing me. So I stretched out on the bed and did some slow, gradual neck turns and stretches, to relieve the pain.
    Imagine my surprise when the noise stopped! If only I had seen a chiropractor instead of “real doctors,” I could have spared myself FIVE years of this! A muscle
    was pressing too tightly on an artery. You might try it. Good luck.

  4. Although I’m not an expert (at all) on Poe’s works, what I seem to remember about them is that most, if not all, have a dark or sinister side.. What torment, that greatly talented mind must have endured, that could produce such words that could capture the reader and at the same time scream out in alarm. RIP. EAP.

    There is speculation now that he died of arsenic poisoning, but I’m not sure if that had an effect on his writings or not.

  5. May your tinnitus not send you out of your belfry, my dear. If you’d like another bell-centric distraction to keep your inner bells quieted on occasion, I recommend another favorite homage, Rachmaninov’s The Bells (choral symphony). Way cool! Richard worked on it with the Swedish Radio Choir a few years ago, prepping them for an upcoming concert, and I fell in love with it. Of course, if you get to hear the Swedish Radio Choir sing just about *anything* you’re likely to tumble head over heels, but this really was an exciting and glorious piece.

  6. I always loved The Raven – did my best to memorise it for recital in school when I was about…10? Maybe younger. I envied those who picked shorter poems, but it stuck to my guns, I needed something creepy!

    I also had tinnitus, but mine was a low buzz. Even had an MRI for it, such fun, and one day I realised it just wasn’t there anymore. It started right after I moved to Ireland and there were many theories bandied about – like, could I be hearing the wind-turbines on the mountain? I still have no clue. But I did find this, which is dead creepy: The Hum! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hum

    Lastly – I can make a vibration like my hum sounded, and I can’t explain how I do it. It’s muscular – sort of like if you can wiggle your ears but not quite. I just did a test and I can wiggle without the noise, or just make the noise, or do both at once…

    I’m curious – did you, or any others here with tinnitus also have ear infections as a child? I did!

    • “The Raven” is one of those unforgettable poems and I have always loved it as well.

      I have heard of the Hum and am thankful I haven’t heard it.

      I didn’t have ear infections as a child, so in my case, there doesn’t seem to be a connection. Glad that yours went away.

  7. Looking back, it’s amazing how unaware most of us were in our youth… of the intricacies of the human body… the frailties… the dangers. And now, as we grow older, we learn not to take things for granted, and to make the most of what still works for us. I’m sorry to hear of this new ringing… it’s something I haven’t encountered yet… but I have learned of my own frailty, and seen some of my faculties go. And I trust that you, like me, will find springs of joy, even when the choices will be narrower… even when there will be a longing in the background for certain pleasures whose memories still reverberate in consciousness though they are now past…

    • I am thankful every day for all the body parts that work and do their jobs without complaint. The ringing is a minor inconvenience for me, but I want to handle it well because the road ahead may hold many more such frailties. I want to focus on what I have, not what I don’t have.

      Thank you for your encouraging words.

  8. I’m sorry to hear you’ve joined the infinitely-ongoing conversation of tinnitus. It can be quite distracting and uncomfortable at times, but thankfully, after having lived with it for more than ten years now, there are times I forget about it completely. My own experience is that calm goes a long way in easing the symptoms, although learning how to accept the inevitable is part of the process.

    As for Bells, for me it was My Son, My Executioner, by Donald Hall. I had never been predisposed to reading poetry, and then, once I read that poem, it sparked something that created a curiosity in me that has ebbed and flowed over time. Yes, I was also a fan of Poe, and Dickinson, but for me, it always came back to Donald Hall. The words still ring in my ear today.

    • Thank you for sharing the poem by Donald Hall. I wasn’t familiar with it, but I can see why it affected you.

      I think you are right about accepting the inevitable. Just as we cannot escape death, we cannot escape physical decay and breakdown. We just have to learn to accept it graciously with joy and, hopefully, humor.

  9. Ah, I hear the voice reciting The Bells, although I can’t remember where or when in my schooling. My memory has a man’s voice. Funny that the mention of it brings back the lovely intonation of the words. So sorry, too, about the tinnitus. I see you have plenty of advice and so I will tamp down my normal desire to pitch in with cures. Well, my reticence is partially due to my lack of knowledge, but that doesn’t usually stop me.

  10. I had tinnitus for a few months a couple of years ago. At first I wondered why a faint humming sound like a combine harvester was there all the time before realising it was tinnitus. Like you, I researched it on the internet and was worried by all the possible causes. It did finally disappear, fortunately. I still don’t know the cause.

    I like your new theme, by the way – very easy on the eye.

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