THE POEM ISRAFEL [transl. Isrāfīl] was written while Edgar A. Poe (1809-1849) was at West Point and first published in April 1831. At West Point Poe didn’t accomplish much except getting expelled from the Military Academy. He was however more determined to become a writer. This one of a few poems which relate to Muslim literature. Apparently he read from an English translation of the Qur’an and maybe several other sources on Islam. Not much research has been done on why Edgar A. Poe took an interest in reading various scriptures from Arabic literature. He was, for sure, familiar with the stories from The Arabian Nights. In this poem he touches briefly on two islamic motifs – the Archangel Israfel and the Koranic Houris. The story which emerges about Israfel in this poem places Poe as a poet within the Romantic tradition. There are much focus on feelings, music and the heart. All of them various expressions typical of Romanticism. The poem consists of uneven stanzas, each stanza ranging from five to eight lines in length. Israfel plays his lute with passion and he sing both wildly and with fire. Israfel’s singing gets noticed as the Heavens listen to him.
The word Israfel is not mentioned in the Quran, but in the Hadiths. However, there’s one Koranic verse which relates to his mission: “And the trumpet shall be blown, so all those that are in the heavens and all those that are in the earth shall swoon, except Allah; then it shall be blown again, then they shall stand up awaiting.” —Qur’an (39.68).
He’s one of the four archangels and often depicted with a horn. On the Day of Resurrection Israfel will appear on a holy rock in Jerusalem, blow the horn and announce the day has arrived. In the Judeo Christian tradition Israfel’s counterpart is Raphael. As already mentioned, Poe also include the Houris in this poem. They are a sort of companions dwelling in Paradise and mentioned several times in the Qur’an. The 72 virgins in the islamic tradition are Huoris.Various interpretations on them among Muslim scholars reveal they are made for lusty adventures for men in Paradise. A Western counterpart would be the Greek nymphs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The ecstasies above
With thy burning measures suit—
Thy grief, thy joy, thy hate, thy love,
With the fervour of thy lute—
Well may the stars be mute!
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.
If I could dwell
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 sky.
Houri – Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Islamic Elements in Poe’s “Al Aaraaf” and “Israfel” – by: ADNAN M. WAZZAN Islamic Studies. Vol. 27, No. 3 (Autumn 1988), pp. 221-229
Israfil – Encyclopaedia Britannica.