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Dickens's 'Chimes' and Its Pathway into Poe's "Bells." (Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe)

By Pollin, Burton R. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Dickens's 'Chimes' and Its Pathway into Poe's "Bells." (Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe)


Pollin, Burton R., The Mississippi Quarterly


A few faint voices, fifty or more years ago,(1) suggested that "The Bells" was derived from Dickens's second Christmas story or Book, separately published in 1844, but Thomas O. Mabbott denied this view in his 1969 edition of the poems.(2) Unfortunately his missing a link in the chain of evidence sidetracked into virtual oblivion a tenable and fruitful idea about a distinctive influence, accounting for much in the poem's style and structure. The argument also requires us to consider Poe's character, situation, and relationship with Dickens.

First, there were Poe's numerous laudatory references to Dickens's works over the years, his one personal meeting with Dickens (misleadingly stated by Poe to Lowell to be two meetings)(3) and his request for English publishing favors for the American, the unsuccess of which turned Poe against him. This annoyance was further exacerbated by Poe's false assumption about Dickens's authorship of a London periodical article disparaging him as an imitative poet.(4) Nevertheless, Poe continued to regard his works highly and remained quite capable of using his material creatively.

Second, however, there was Poe's unquestionably early reading of the four-part novella The Chimes, published after The Christmas Carol (of 1843), as the second Christmas Book, in December 1844, timed for British holiday gift-giving. It was piratically reprinted in New York in tiny letters on two pages of the New-York Evening Mirror, January 28, 1845, p. 1:96. This issue immediately preceded the Mirror's printing of "The Raven" by Poe, who was then an editorial assistant to Willis (called "mechanical paragraphist"). Of course, The Chimes, which achieved ten English editions in 1845, quickly had two pirated American editions, in 1845, in New York and Philadelphia, as well as one in 1847, no. 71 in Wiley and Putnam's "Library of Choice Reading." Poe's keen interest in this firm's output, which included his own two separate 1845 volumes of the poems and of the tales, would now guarantee a second reading at least of The Chimes.

Poe's deep interest in the theme of bells (or chimes, a true synonym) for various types of writings surely springs from their obvious symbolism for the passage of time, as in "The Masque of the Red Death," or the evocation of differing moods, such as playfulness (as in the belled, jester's cap in "Hop-Frog" or "The Cask of Amontillado") or the knell of death (as in "Tamerlane" or "Lenore")(5); and, well-assorted and described, bells do service for effective onomatopoeia, as in the revised and peerless form of "The Bells."(6) The final form in four stanzas of 112 lines showed a great change from the two-stanza, 17-line version of February 6, 1848; this was admittedly based on a friend's hints to stimulate the uninspired Poe, for a two-stanza poem about "the little silver Bells" and "the heavy iron Bells" (see the Appendix, first two items).(7) Surely, many of the additions and improvements can be ascribed to Poe's rereading of Dickens's work between February 1848 and 1849. During nine months, "The Bells" had been profoundly altered into a major work, not far behind "The Raven" among admiring memorizers, metricists, and anthologists, struck by Poe's extraordinary use of repetition for musical and rhetorical effects.(8)

The crucial change demands that we examine J. H. Whitty's claim of Poe's admission of The Chimes's role in his poem via Frederick W. Thomas's quoted but now lost "Recollections of E. A. Poe." This was obviously a real "book" that he wrote after Poe's death, based on many years of close friendship.(9) Whitty presents many virtual transcriptions from that document that comprise at least twenty-nine of the forty-eight pages of his "Memoir" (pp. xxi-xlix), and many in the Appendix of notes. He gives information about "The Bells" (of 1849), including Thomas's ownership of a now lost manuscript copy; about Poe's telling Thomas "that the `Chimes' by Dickens was his final inspiration"; and about Poe as responsible for the first American reprint, in the Mirror of January 28, 1845.

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