Themes and Meanings

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During the Romantic period in both British and American literature the attention of many writers—especially poets—turned to the issue of creativity itself. By the end of the eighteenth century an emphasis on individualism prevailed, and creativity was seen as an expression of the imaginative spirit of an intensely feeling and expressive soul. In “Israfel,” Poe displays many of these attitudes about creativity, creative genius, and art. In his very concern with what makes a superior artist, he finds himself in harmony with other poets and writers of the Romantic age.

Israfel represents the ideal Romantic artist for many reasons, the first of which is that his very heart is his instrument. He plays and sings, in other words, “from the heart,” from his passions and his emotions. The Romantic writer trusted emotions; he had turned from the eighteenth century’s emphasis on the mind, on logic and reason, to a veneration of feeling, sensitivity, and even sensation. Thus, not only does Israfel play with passion, but he also sings “wildly” with “fire.” He is not held back by decorum or inhibition; he sings what he feels.

Like the consummate artist that he represents, Israfel commands respect from the rest of the universe; somehow, what he does when he sings causes all of creation to take notice. Even the inhabitants of the heavens take notice, for Israfel’s art is so perfectly an expression of his singing heart that all acknowledge his gift. Finally, Israfel’s art is enhanced by his closeness to perfection; he lives, after all, in heaven. He is an angel. The Platonic notion that the world is an inferior representation of some ultimate, perfect ideal informed the thought of many Romantic writers, and Poe reveals himself to be no exception. Heaven and perfection belong to Israfel, so he can sing beautifully.

What of the earthbound artist, however—what of the writer who is not an angel and who does not own heaven and all of heaven’s glories? This is the question that the poem seems to raise, for the poem is spoken by just such an artist. The speaker of the poem—probably Poe—reminds Israfel that writing poetry on earth is more difficult than writing poetry in heaven, and he asserts that Israfel would himself not be such a great artist were he “mortal.” Even more significantly, the speaker boasts that if he were in Israfel’s place, he might sing “a bolder note,” a more beautiful song.

Since the speaker, who also is the creator of the poem, is only mortal, his work—this very poem—must be flawed. It will not be the perfect song that Israfel sings. In fact, this might even explain some of the oddities of this poem. Perhaps Poe’s use of unmatched stanzas, his irregular patterns of meter and rhyme, and his use of two different words for Israfel’s musical instrument (“lute” and “lyre”) are simply his evidence of imperfection. Perhaps he indicates, with these reminders of his mortality, that he is still far from the ideal that an artist should seek. His poem is merely—a poem.

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