“Israfel” is a lyrical poem of eight uneven stanzas, each stanza ranging from five to eight lines in length. The title is the name of an angel mentioned in the Koran, the sacred book of the Muslims. Edgar Allan Poe appended a note to this poem to make sure that his readers understood Israfel’s significance; the note read: “And the angel Israfel, whose heartstrings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures—Koran.” Israfel’s importance as a singer or artist is central to the poem, and Poe’s consideration here of creativity—singing and music making—reflects a typical concern of other Romantic poets such as George Gordon, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. The poem is written in the first person from the point of view of someone—perhaps Poe himself—who is also a singer or creator of some sort, but readers do not discover this important information until the last stanza of the poem. The poem begins by stating that an angel lives in heaven and that his name is Israfel. Israfel, who is so creative that his very heart is a musical instrument, is such a wonderful singer that, according to legend, the stars even stop their own “hymns” to listen to him. The moon is, moreover, in love with him, while the lightning and constellations such as the “Pleiads” listen as well.
In the third stanza, Poe begins to explain what makes Israfel’s music so lovely that even the heavens take notice: His singing is exquisite and passionate because of the instrument he plays—his own heart (“The trembling living wire”). In this stanza, Poe refers to this instrument as a “lyre” (a stringed instrument like a harp), but in the first stanza he calls it a “lute” (a stringed instrument more like a guitar or mandolin). In the fourth stanza, Poe explains that where Israfel lives (“the skies that angel trod”) is extraordinary (“deep thoughts are a duty”) and beautiful (the Houri, beautiful women who wait in heaven for the devout Muslim, are as lovely as stars here).
For these reasons (because his surroundings are so lovely and because he plays his music from his heart), Israfel is not wrong to despise inferior art (“An unimpassioned song”); he deserves the reward of being called “Best bard” (the greatest singer), and he deserves to wear the honorary crown of the most skillful—the laurels. Here the poem shifts slightly in that Poe addresses Israfel directly; he writes, “thou art not wrong.” In the last two stanzas, the tone of the poem changes dramatically, and we see the speaker emerging more forcefully and somewhat bitterly. Poe tells Israfel that all that is in Heaven is there for Israfel while people on earth live with both pain and pleasure: in “a world of sweets and sours,/ Our flowers are merely—flowers.” The poem concludes with the somewhat angry observation that if the speaker of the poem could live in heaven and Israfel on earth, Israfel might not be such a wonderful singer, and he—the speaker or Poe—might be much better.
At the center of “Israfel” is the figure of the angel, Israfel. Since Israfel sings and plays music, since he is referred to as a “bard,” and since—by the end of the poem—he is compared to the speaker of the poem who is himself a poet, one can safely assume that Israfel serves as a representative for the artist or the creative spirit. As such, one might refer to Israfel as a metaphor for...
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the artist, as a stand-in which allows Poe to develop his ideas about art, writing, and creativity. Involved in this metaphorical framework are other important aspects of the poem. First, Israfel’s instrument—or his means to create—is represented variously by a lute, a lyre, and his human heart. The fruits of Israfel’s creativity are rendered as singing and as music so that these two creative efforts become emblematic for all creative efforts. Finally, those who listen to Israfel’s music are the heavens; his audience includes the highest and most unreachable elements in the physical world—stars, lightning, the moon, constellations.
Although the rhymes in “Israfel” are unpredictable, conforming to no particular formal pattern, each stanza is intricately and skillfully set to rhyme. Most stanzas have only two distinct end rhymes (the first stanza rhymes “dwell,” “well,” “Israfel,” “tell,” and “spell” as the first rhyme and “lute” and “mute” as the second), but occasionally a stanza has three different rhymes (the second stanza rhymes “above” and “love,” “noon” and “moon,” and “levin,” “even,” “seven,” and “heaven”). Sometimes Poe uses near rhymes, words which do not quite repeat the same sounds (in the last stanza, “I” and “melody”); and sometimes he uses visual rhymes, words which look alike but sound different (in the second stanza, “even” and “seven”).
Like the rhymes in “Israfel,” the meters and the stanza structures are uneven and refuse to conform to a particular pattern. Occasionally, the poem establishes a regular rhythm only to interrupt the pattern it sets up. In the first stanza, for example, the opening four lines have three beats each, while the next two lines carry on and increase the momentum with four beats per line. Suddenly, however, the stanza ends with an abrupt line of only two beats. Sometimes readers feel a little disrupted and surprised by such techniques.
Several sets of polarities or oppositions are set up in “Israfel,” and these become central to Poe’s focus in the poem. There is, first, the distinction between heaven and earth: Israfel, an angel, lives in heaven, and the speaker of the poem is an inhabitant of earth. Israfel’s world is so far superior to the speaker’s that what is “shadow” for Israfel becomes “sunshine” in the earthly realm. Israfel is, moreover, a “spirit” while the speaker, again, is flesh and blood. There is also the opposition between singing and silence, since those who are most moved by the artistry of Israfel are moved to listen and to remain “mute.” Finally, there is the beauty of the heavens, the “deep thoughts,” the lovely Houris, and the sense of love as mature and fully developed (“Where Love’s a grown-up god”). This excellence is set against the real world of “sweets and sours” where even beautiful things are limited: “Our flowers are merely—flowers.”
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