Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (and E. A. Poe), “Israfel,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 171-179 (This material is protected by copyright)


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­[page 171, continued:]

ISRAFEL

This poem is one of Poe’s great accomplishments. It may justly be called a masterpiece, for even in its first version it shows the power of his original genius.

“Israfel” presents no problem of interpretation. The poet acknowledges the superiority of the angel to a man, but says that, in his own proper sphere, the mortal poet is doing very well. The sentiments set forth by Poe in the poem are underlined by his quotation in a review of Lord Brougham’s Critical and Miscellaneous Writings, in Graham’s Magazine for March 1842, repeated in the “Marginalia” of the Southern Literary Messenger of June 1849 (our number 229): “ ‘He that is born to be a man,’ says ­[page 172:] Wieland in his ‘Peregrinus Proteus,’ ‘neither should nor can be anything nobler, greater, or better than a man.’ The fact is, that in efforts to soar above our nature, we invariably fall below it.” This comment is in a London translation of Christoph Martin Wieland’s Private History of Peregrinus Proteus (1796), I, 43, but Poe probably picked it up from Bulwer, who used it as a motto for chapter iv of Book V of Ernest Maltravers (1837), a favorite source of wit and wisdom for Poe.

Inspiration for “Israfel” obviously comes from Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, where there are two passages concerning the angel. The first has a note, “ ‘The angel Israfil, who has the most melodious voice of all God’s creatures.’ — Sale.” Poe made this the motto for the first version of his poem. But there is another passage, very near the end of Lalla Rookh, with a footnote cross reference to the earlier note, and it is this that, I think, inspired Poe:

The Georgian’s song was scarcely mute,

When the same measure, sound for sound,

Was caught up by another lute,

And so divinely breath’d around,

That all stood hush’d and wondering,

And turn’d and look’d into the air,

As if they thought to see the wing,

Of Israfil, the Angel, there; —

So pow’rfully on ev’ry soul

That new, enchanted measure stole.

While now a voice, sweet as the note

Of the charm’d lute, was heard to float

Along its chords, and so entwine

Its sounds with theirs, that none knew whether

The voice or lute was most divine,

So wondrously they went together.

There may also be an echo in Poe’s poem of “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687” by John Dryden, lines 17, 21-23:

When Jubal struck the corded shell, . . .(1)

Less than a god they thought there could not dwell

Within the hollow of that shell

That spoke so sweetly and so well. ­[page 173:]

Poe presumably also knew of a reference to “Israfil” in Amir Khan (New York, 1829), by the once famous child poet, Lucretia Maria Davidson. Poe’s spelling suggests his use of at least one source besides those named.

It has become customary to identify Poe with his angel; the name is the title of Hervey Allen’s biography. The practice probably began with Mrs. Osgood’s “Echo Song,” published in the Broadway Journal of September 6, 1845.(2) The transfer of the name, however, is unfortunate, since it disregards the main point made in the poem, the excellence of Man.

 

TEXTS

(A) Poems (1831), pp. 43-45; (B) Southern Literary Messenger, August 1836 (2:539); (C) Graham’s Magazine for October 1841 (19:183); (D) Philadelphia Saturday Museum, March 4, 1843; (E) Broadway Journal, July 26, 1845 (2:41); (F) The Raven and Other Poems (1845), pp. 16-17; (G) J. Lorimer Graham copy of The Raven . . .; (H) R. W. Griswold, Poets and Poetry of America, 10th ed. (1850), p. 421; (J) Works (1850), II, 46-47.

The first version (A) and the last to be authorized (G) are given. B shows only three variants from A. The manuscript change in G is only the insertion of a hyphen in line 25, “grown-up.” For clarity I print the introductory quotation as a motto, although all early texts treat it as a footnote to the title.

ISRAFEL [A]

And the angel Israfel who has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures — KORAN.

 


­[page 175, continued:]

ISRAFEL [G]

And the angel Israfel, whose heart-strings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures. — KORAN.  [[n]]  [[v]]

In Heaven a spirit doth dwell

[[n]]

“Whose heart-strings are a lute;”

[[n]]

None sing so wildly well

As the angel Israfel,

5

And the giddy stars (so legends tell)

Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell

Of his voice, all mute.

 

Tottering above

[[n]]

In her highest noon,

[[v]]

10

The enamoured moon

Blushes with love,

[[n]]

While, to listen, the red levin

[[n]]

(With the rapid Pleiads, even,

Which were seven,)

[[v]]

15

Pauses in Heaven. ­[page 176:]

 

And they say (the starry choir

And the other listening things)

[[n]]

That Israfeli’s fire

[[v]]

Is owing to that lyre

[[n]]

20

By which he sits and sings —

[[v]]

[[n]]

The trembling living wire

[[v]]

Of those unusual strings.

 

[[v]]

[[n]]

But the skies that angel trod,

Where deep thoughts are a duty —

[[v]]

25

Where Love’s a grown-up God

[[v]]

Where the Houri glances are

Imbued with all the beauty

[[v]]

Which we worship in a star.

 

[[v]]

Therefore, thou art not wrong,

30

Israfeli, who despisest

[[v]]

An unimpassioned song;

To thee the laurels belong,

Best bard, because the wisest!

Merrily live, and long!

 

35

The ecstasies above

With thy burning measures suit —

[[n]]

Thy grief, thy joy, thy hate, thy love,

With the fervour of thy lute —

[[n]]

Well may the stars be mute!

 

40

Yes, Heaven is thine; but this

Is a world of sweets and sours;

[[n]]

Our flowers are merely — flowers,

[[v]]

And the shadow of thy perfect bliss

Is the sunshine of ours.

 

[[v]]

[[n]]

45

If I could dwell

Where Israfel

Hath dwelt, and he where I, ­[page 177:]

[[v]]

He might not sing so wildly well

[[v]]

A mortal melody,

[[n]]

50

While a bolder note than this might swell

[[n]]

From my lyre within the sky.

[1831-1845]

 


[page 175, continued:]

VARIANTS [[for version A]]

21  Omitted (B)

23  yon / a (B)

43  stormier / loftier (B)

 


[page 177, continued:]

VARIANTS [[for version G]]

Motto:  And the angel Israfel, or Israfeli, whose heart-strings are a lute, and who is the most musical of all God’s creatures. KORAN. (C); [D and E read like G but credit the motto to Sale’s Koran.]

10  enamoured / enamour’d (D, H)

15  Transferred to follow 12 in C

19  owing to / due unto (C)

21  That trembling living lyre (C)

22  Of / With (C)

23  skies / Heavens (C)

25  Where / And (D, E); Love’s a grown-up / Love is a grown (C)

26  Where / And (D, E); the Houri / Houri (C)

28  a / the (C) which also inserts after the line another line: The more lovely, the more far!

29  Therefore, thou art not / Thou art not, therefore (C, D, E)

31  unimpassioned / unimpassion’d (D, H)

43  thy perfect / thy (C)

45  could / did (C)

48  so wildly / one half so (C)

49  A mortal melody / One half so passionately (C)

 


[page 177, continued:]

NOTES [[for version G]]

Motto:  That Poe was using Moore is confirmed by the fact that, as Campbell observed (Poems, p. 203), Poe’s motto is not in the Koran itself but in George Sale’s “Preliminary Discourse” to his translation of the Koran, which Moore quoted in his notes.

A lute is actually shaped like a heart (the anatomical, not the playing-card variety). Poe may have had in mind the lines from Letitia E. Landon’s “Eastern King” in The Golden Violet (1827), p. 141:

And my own heart is as the lute

I now am waking;

Wound to too fine and high a pitch

They both are breaking.

A similar conceit is in some lines from “Le Refus” by Béranger, which Poe added as a motto to “The Fall of the House of Usher” in 1845. It is improbable that Poe could have seen them before 1841, hence Campbell’s suggestion that they were a source for “Israfel” may be dismissed. See the notes on Poe’s story in the Tales and Sketches.

2-21  Wilbur (Poe, p. 136) compares “Romance,” lines 20-21: “My heart would feel to be a crime / Unless it trembled with the strings.”

3  Philip Pendleton Cooke, writing of Poe in the Southern Literary Messenger for April 1846 (12:200), calls attention to “an unconscious appropriation” from Byron’s Bride of Abydos, II, xxviii, 41: “He sings so wild and well!”

9-10  Compare these lines with lines 67-68 of Il Penseroso: “To behold the wandering moon, / Riding near her highest noon.” ­[page 178:]

12  “Levin” is an obsolete word for lightning, revived by Scott.

13-14  The star cluster called the Pleiades is mentioned in Job 9:9. It is situated in Taurus, and consists of seven stars. One of them became fainter, within the memory of man, and two thousand years ago was thought invisible. It has become brighter again and can now be seen by sharp eyes in clear weather. The stars were said by the Greeks and Romans to be sisters, the daughters of Pleionë, translated to the skies. According to one of the classic stories related by Ovid (Fasti, IV, 170ff.), one of the sisters loved a mortal and, as the price of willingly sharing his mortality, faded from sight.

There are poems on the subject by many writers of Poe’s time, including a favorite of his youth, Letitia E. Landon (“The Lost Pleiad,” published in The Venetian Bracelet, 1829, p. 69). But Poe did not add the Pleiades to his poem until 1841; he may have noticed George Hill’s poem about them, which had a long introductory note, in the New-Yorker of May 25, 1839 (7:152). In it Ovid’s words (actually Quae septem dici, sex tamen esse solent) are quoted as quae septem — sex, the terseness of which is as effective as Poe’s magical phrase.

18  “Israfeli” means grammatically “my Israfel,” but Dr. John L. Mish tells me the usage is almost unknown, and Poe’s note, which suggests that he thought “Israfeli” a variant nominative, makes one feel that here Poe builded better than he knew.

20  The houris are the nymphs of the Mahometan paradise; the name comes through the French from the Persian huri, and is derived from an Arabic word referring to the dark eyes of these ladies, like those of a gazelle.

21  Charles Henry Watts II, Thomas Holley Chivers (1956), p. 162, cites the doctor’s “God Dwells in Light,” later part of “The Song of Seralim”:

From thy celestial lyre, . . .

In concert with each golden wire,

Pour forth the living tide of song —

The sweetest, holiest hymn

That ever Angel sung!

This appeared in the Magnolia for January 1843. Poe first used “wire” in his poem in the Saturday Museum text, presumably prepared late in February of the same year. This is the only “borrowing from Chivers” by Poe that seems to me at all likely.

23  Wilbur (Poe, p. 136) complains of the line as defective, the tense being changed to get a rhyme, and the word order inverted (something rare with Poe) — but great emphasis on “skies” is effective here.

37  Campbell (Poems, p. 206) compares Edmund Waller, “On a Girdle,” “My joy, my grief, my hope, my love.”

39  Harry T. Baker in Modern Language Notes, March 1910, compares these lines to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, V, 74-75: “And now it is an angel’s song, / That makes the heavens be mute.”

42  Compare Wordsworth, “Peter Bell” (which Poe ridiculed in his “Letter to B——”), I, 58-60: ­[page 179:]

A primrose by a river’s brim

A yellow primrose was to him,

And it was nothing more.

45-51  Campbell (Poems, p. 207) compares the last stanza of Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” but there are no close verbal parallels.

50  Compare “The Poetic Principle”: “We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels.”

51  In the earlier versions Poe wrote as if the lute and the lyre were identical, but later corrected this mistake. He may have observed Thomas Moore’s note on his Twenty-third Ode of Anacreon, where a similar error by Madame André Dacier is discussed.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 172:]

1  Jubal was, according to Genesis 4:19-21, a son of Lamech and Adah, and “the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.” See also Mark Van Doren, The Poetry of John Dryden (New York, 1920), p. 333.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 173:]

2  See p. 234, below.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Israfel)