Poe derived the title from
the name of an angel in Islamic literature. According to Islam, an archangel
named Israfel, also spelled Israfil, will blow a trumpet to awaken
the dead for final judgment on the Day of Resurrection at the end of the
world. The connection between Poe's Israfel, who plays a stringed instrument,
and the Islamic Israfil is that both play a musical instrument and both
are servants of God.
"Israfel" is a lyric poem.
It is unlike most other Poe poems--which dwell on gloom, loss, sadness,
darkness, and death--in that it is positive, cheerful, bright.
"Israfel" was published in
1831 in the Southern Literary Messenger and in a collection entitled
The latter was published in New York by Elam Bliss.
Poe's Theory of Poetry
The poem presents a guiding
principle of Edgar Allan Poe's poetry: Like the music of the angel Israfel,
a poem must please the ear while expressing genuine emotion, or passion.
Israfel performs so well on his stringed instrument (and on the "heart
strings" of the audience) that the stars and the moon, indeed all of the
heavens, listen attentively. Even the lightning (levin, in Stanza
2) pauses to listen. The speaker, or narrator, says Israfel deserves praise
as the best of the bards because he plays with such passion.
Poe Develops the Theme
To underscore and develop
his theme--that a poem should be musical and passionate--Poe uses rhyme,
rhythm, and alliteration to create pleasing sounds and personification
and other imagery to suggest deep emotion.
Each stanza contains end
rhyme. For example, in Stanza 1, the first line rhymes with Lines 3, 4,
5, and 6; Line 2 rhymes with Line 7. In Stanza 2, the first line rhymes
with the fourth, the second with the third, and the fifth with the remaining
lines. In addition, he uses internal rhyme, as in Line 4 of Stanza 1 (As
and Line 5 of Stanza 4 (imbued with
all the beauty).
The meter of "Israfel" varies.
Nevertheless, the poem flows rhythmically, mostly with lines of either
iambic or anapestic feet or with lines combining both types of feet. Note
the varying but pleasing cadence of the first stanza (with stressed syllables
in capital letters):
In HEA ven a SPIR
it doth DWELL "Whose HEART-strings
None SING so WILD
ly WELL As the AN gel IS
To further enhance the cadence
of the poem, Poe use alliteration to create pleasing sound patterns. Following
are a examples in the first four lines:
a spirit doth
Black: h sound
are a lute;"
the angel Israfel
To highlight the importance
of emotion, Poe uses personification to animate the heavens. Following
are two examples of personification in the second stanza.
listen, the red levin (With the rapid Pleiads,
Which were seven,)
Paradox - Hyperbole -Metaphor
To stress the brilliance
of Israfel's emotional performance, Poe uses a combination paradox, hyperbole,
and metaphor when he says in the two lines ending Stanza 7 that the shadow
Israfel casts is sunshine:
And the shadow
of thy perfect bliss
the sunshine of ours.
Paradox: contradictory statement
that is true
Metaphor: comparison of
one thing (shadow) to an unlike thing (sunshine)
Words Suggesting Emotion
Poe also uses single words
suggesting deep emotion, such as the following: heart-strings (Stanza
1), blushes (Stanza 2), fire and trembling (Stanza
3), and ecstasies, burning, grief, joy, hate, love, and fervor
. Israfel By Edgar Allan Poe
Complete Text With Explanatory Notes
by Michael J. Cummings.
Text and Notes
1 In Heaven a spirit doth
dwell "Whose heart-strings are
a lute;" None sing so wildly well As the angel
Israfel, And the giddy
stars, (so legends tell) Ceasing their hymns, attend
the spell Of his voice, all mute.
Stanza 1 Notes
Line 2 expresses Poe's view
of what constitutes good poetry: musicality and genuine emotion. "Whose
heart-strings are a lute" is a metaphor saying, in effect, "whose emotions
are music." Poe used quotation marks around this metaphor because it first
appeared in a translation of "Le Refus," by the French poet Pierre-Jean
de Béranger (1780-1857).
Stringed instrument, plucked like a guitar, with a long neck and a pear-shaped
body. It was developed in Europe on an Arabic model called an 'Ud (spelled
in Balkan countries).
Israfel: Note that Poe here rhymes the last syllable of angel
with the last syllable of Israfel, as well as rhyming Israfel
with the last words in Lines 1, 2, 4, and 5.
This word suggests dizziness and unsteadiness. (The stars are high in the
heavens and may suffer from vertigo.) But, arguably, it also suggests the
twinkling activity of the stars.
Pay attention to
2 Tottering above In her highest noon, The enamoured
Moon Blushes with love, While, to listen, the red
levin (With the rapid
Pleiads, even, Which were seven,) Pauses in Heaven.
Stanza 2 Notes
Moon: It is interesting that Poe here couples noon, which occurs
at midday, with Moon, which appears
in a dark sky.
variant spelling of enamored, meaning captivated or filled with love.
Pleiads (or Pleiades): In Greek mythology, the seven daughters
of Atlas, the Titan god who carried the heavens on his shoulders. Zeus,
the king of the gods, changed the Pleiades into stars to put them beyond
the reach of Orion, a giant hunter of Boeotia who was pursuing them. The
names of the Pleiades are Alcyone, Celaeno, Electra, Maia, Merope, Sterope,
and Taygete. The word rapid suggests that the Pleiades are still
running from Orion. After his death, he was also changed into a star. In
astronomy, the Pleiades are a star group in the constellation of Taurus.
3 And they say, (the starry
choir And the other listening
things) That Israfeli's fire Is owing to that lyre By which he sits and sings
The trembling living wire Of those unusual strings.
Stanza 3 Notes
Poe here appears to be referring to one or more of the nine orders of angels
rather than to singers. (Each order of angels was known as a choir.) The
nine choirs of angels, from highest rank to lowest, were seraphim, cherubim,
thrones, dominations or dominions, virtues, powers, principalities or princedoms,
archangels, and angels.
stringed instrument popular in ancient times. It resembles a harp. Poe
apparently was using lyre as another word for lute. But the
instruments are not the same.
4. But the skies that
angel trod, Where deep thoughts are
a duty Where Love's a grown-up
god Where the Houri
glances are Imbued with all the beauty Which we worship in a star.
In Islam, a beautiful virgin who attends a man who attains Paradise.
5 Therefore, thou art not
wrong, Israfeli, who despisest An unimpassioned song; To thee the laurels
belong, Best bard,
because the wisest! Merrily live, and long!
Stanza 5 Notes
wreath of laurel with which ancient Greeks and Romans crowned high achievers
in poetry, oratory, athletics, war, and and other activities.
6 The ecstasies above With thy burning measures
suit Thy grief, thy joy, thy
hate, thy love, With the fervor of thy lute
Well may the stars be mute!
Stanza 6 Notes
short passages in music or poetry
7 Yes, Heaven is thine; but
this Is a world of sweets and
sours; Our flowers are merely
flowers, And the shadow of thy perfect
bliss Is the sunshine of ours. 8 If I could dwell Where Israfel Hath dwelt, and he where
I, He might not sing so wildly
well A mortal melody, While a bolder note than
this might swell From my lyre within the