Audio

“Israfel” by Edgar Allen Poe

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.
 
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.
 
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
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 sky.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Israfel and the Limits of Beauty

At first glance Israfel by Edgar Allen Poe is merely a celebration of beauty and the human concept of perfection as captured by our common myths of heaven and angels. Poe’s descriptions of the angel Israfel’s music are able to invoke a sense of awe and wonder at the human capacity to conceive of the truly breathtakingly beautiful that is rarely matched in verse, song, art, literature or film.

However, Poe’s message is actually much deeper than just the appreciation of this human concept of beauty, and is actually about its ultimate unattainability. Poe reminds the reader that Israfel is only able to produce such a level of splendid beauty because he lives in heaven, away from all the pain and suffering of the world.

Israfel represents a moving reminder of just how ethereal and fleeting our capacity to appreciate beauty truly is. Somewhere in our minds we keep the knowledge of the existence of such unparalleled beauty, even though we rarely experience it, because it provides us with the will and the support to carry on through the worries of this world.

Israfel is an inspirational poem in the end, once we have fully processed the profoundly moving experience that Poe’s words create in us. From the incredible highs of the glimpses of pure beauty that his earlier verses provide to the sobering lows that the later reminders of the limitations of beauty produce, the journey itself teaches us about the fundamental nature of the human condition. Those sweet moments of pure and unadulterated perfection are all too brief and few in life. We should savor their momentary bliss, and hold them in our hearts forever. Inevitably we will return from this momentary bliss to be faced with the same reality that makes up the majority of our lives, but we will always have the memories of these incredible moments to keep us strong, positive and looking forward to a brighter future.