Fall of the House of Usher
Pit and the Pendulum
Masque of the Red Death
Premature Burial
Tomb of Ligeia
An Evening With Poe
The Mystery
Of Edgar Allan Poe
The Comedy of Terrors
The Raven
Poe: a Light
And Enlightening Look
A Poem by Edgar Allan Poe  (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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The Title
Type of Work
Publication Date
Development of the Theme
Rhyme and Rhythm
Complete Text
Explanatory Notes
Other Poe Works
Background Notes Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..© 2006
The Title

Poe derived the title from the name of an angel in Islamic literature. According to Islam, an archangel named Israfel, also spelled Israfil, will blow a trumpet to awaken the dead for final judgment on the Day of Resurrection at the end of the world. The connection between Poe's Israfel, who plays a stringed instrument, and the Islamic Israfil is that both play a musical instrument and both are servants of God. 

Type of Work

"Israfel" is a lyric poem. It is unlike most other Poe poems--which dwell on gloom, loss, sadness, darkness, and death--in that it is positive, cheerful, bright.

Date of Publication

"Israfel" was published in 1831 in the Southern Literary Messenger and in a collection entitled Poems. The latter was published in New York by Elam Bliss. 

Theme: Poe's Theory of Poetry

The poem presents a guiding principle of Edgar Allan Poe's poetry: Like the music of the angel Israfel, a poem must please the ear while expressing genuine emotion, or passion. Israfel performs so well on his stringed instrument (and on the "heart strings" of the audience) that the stars and the moon, indeed all of the heavens, listen attentively. Even the lightning (levin, in Stanza 2) pauses to listen. The speaker, or narrator, says Israfel deserves praise as the best of the bards because he plays with such passion. 

How Poe Develops the Theme

To underscore and develop his theme--that a poem should be musical and passionate--Poe uses rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration to create pleasing sounds and personification and other imagery to suggest deep emotion. 


Each stanza contains end rhyme. For example, in Stanza 1, the first line rhymes with Lines 3, 4, 5, and 6; Line 2 rhymes with Line 7. In Stanza 2, the first line rhymes with the fourth, the second with the third, and the fifth with the remaining lines. In addition, he uses internal rhyme, as in Line 4 of Stanza 1 (As the angelIsrafel) and Line 5 of Stanza 4 (imbued with all the beauty).


The meter of "Israfel" varies. Nevertheless, the poem flows rhythmically, mostly with lines of either iambic or anapestic feet or with lines combining both types of feet. Note the varying but pleasing cadence of the first stanza (with stressed syllables in capital letters):

    In HEA ven a SPIR it doth DWELL
    "Whose HEART-strings ARE a LUTE;"
    None SING so WILD ly WELL
    As the AN gel IS ra FEL

To further enhance the cadence of the poem, Poe use alliteration to create pleasing sound patterns. Following are a examples in the first four lines: 
........In Heaven a spirit doth dwell Black: h sound
........"Whose heart-strings are a lute;" Red: s sound
........None sing so wildly well Green: d sound
........As the angel Israfel Blue: w sound
Brown: z sound


To highlight the importance of emotion, Poe uses personification to animate the heavens. Following are two examples of personification in the second stanza. 

    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
Paradox - Hyperbole -Metaphor

To stress the brilliance of Israfel's emotional performance, Poe uses a combination paradox, hyperbole, and metaphor when he says in the two lines ending Stanza 7 that the shadow Israfel casts is sunshine: 

    And the shadow of thy perfect bliss 
    Is the sunshine of ours. 

    Paradox: contradictory statement that is true
    Hyperbole: exaggeration
    Metaphor: comparison of one thing (shadow) to an unlike thing (sunshine)

Words Suggesting Emotion

Poe also uses single words suggesting deep emotion, such as the following: heart-strings (Stanza 1), blushes (Stanza 2), fire and trembling (Stanza 3), and ecstasies, burning, grief, joy, hate, love, and fervor (Stanza 6).

By Edgar Allan Poe
Complete Text With Explanatory Notes by Michael J. Cummings.
Text and Notes
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.

Stanza 1 Notes

Line 2 expresses Poe's view of what constitutes good poetry: musicality and genuine emotion. "Whose heart-strings are a lute" is a metaphor saying, in effect, "whose emotions are music." Poe used quotation marks around this metaphor because it first appeared in a translation of "Le Refus," by the French poet Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780-1857).

lute: Stringed instrument, plucked like a guitar, with a long neck and a pear-shaped body. It was developed in Europe on an Arabic model called an 'Ud (spelled oud in Balkan countries).
angel Israfel: Note that Poe here rhymes the last syllable of angel with the last syllable of Israfel, as well as rhyming Israfel with the last words in Lines 1, 2, 4, and 5.
giddy: This word suggests dizziness and unsteadiness. (The stars are high in the heavens and may suffer from vertigo.) But, arguably, it also suggests the twinkling activity of the stars. 
attend: Pay attention to 

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.

Stanza 2 Notes

noon, Moon: It is interesting that Poe here couples noon, which occurs at midday, with Moon, which appears in a dark sky.
enamoured: variant spelling of enamored, meaning captivated or filled with love.
levin: lightning
rapid Pleiads (or Pleiades): In Greek mythology, the seven daughters of Atlas, the Titan god who carried the heavens on his shoulders. Zeus, the king of the gods, changed the Pleiades into stars to put them beyond the reach of Orion, a giant hunter of Boeotia who was pursuing them. The names of the Pleiades are Alcyone, Celaeno, Electra, Maia, Merope, Sterope, and Taygete. The word rapid suggests that the Pleiades are still running from Orion. After his death, he was also changed into a star. In astronomy, the Pleiades are a star group in the constellation of Taurus. 

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.

Stanza 3 Notes

choir: Poe here appears to be referring to one or more of the nine orders of angels rather than to singers. (Each order of angels was known as a choir.) The nine choirs of angels, from highest rank to lowest, were seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations or dominions, virtues, powers, principalities or princedoms, archangels, and angels.
lyre: stringed instrument popular in ancient times. It resembles a harp. Poe apparently was using lyre as another word for lute. But the instruments are not the same.

4 .
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.

Stanza 4 Notes

that angel: Israfel
Houri: In Islam, a beautiful virgin who attends a man who attains Paradise.

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!

Stanza 5 Notes

laurels: wreath of laurel with which ancient Greeks and Romans crowned high achievers in poetry, oratory, athletics, war, and and other activities.
bard: poet

The ecstasies above
With thy burning measures suit
Thy grief, thy joy, thy hate, thy love,
With the fervor of thy lute
Well may the stars be mute!

Stanza 6 Notes

measures: short passages in music or poetry

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.