Al Aaraaf
"Al Aaraaf" is an early poem by American writer Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective...

, first published in 1829. It is based on stories from the Qur'an
The Quran , also transliterated Qur'an, Koran, Alcoran, Qur’ān, Coran, Kuran, and al-Qur’ān, is the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God . It is regarded widely as the finest piece of literature in the Arabic language...

, and tells of the afterlife in a place called Al Aaraaf
Sura Al-A'raf is the seventh chapter of the Qur'an, with 206 verses. It is a Meccan sura. Its final verse, verse 206, requires a sajdah, or prostration.-Verses:...

. At 422 lines, it is Poe's longest poem.

"Al Aaraaf", which Poe claimed to have written before he was 15, was first published as the major poem in Poe's 1829 collection Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. The book and "Al Aaraaf" in particular received mostly negative reviews for its complexity, obscure references, and odd structure. Some, however, noted the potential in the young poet, including John C. Neal, to whom Poe had shown "Al Aaraaf" prior to publication. Poe would later refer to Neal's response as the first words of encouragement he had received. Nevertheless, the negative response to "Al Aaraaf" may have inspired Poe's later poetic theory that poems should be kept short.

Years later, in 1845, Poe used "Al Aaraaf" to hoax
A hoax is a deliberately fabricated falsehood made to masquerade as truth. It is distinguishable from errors in observation or judgment, or rumors, urban legends, pseudosciences or April Fools' Day events that are passed along in good faith by believers or as jokes.-Definition:The British...

 members of the Boston
Boston is the capital of and largest city in Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. The largest city in New England, Boston is regarded as the unofficial "Capital of New England" for its economic and cultural impact on the entire New England region. The city proper had...

 literary circle during a reading. Poe claimed the poem was a new one and his audience was perplexed by it. He later claimed a Boston crowd did not deserve a new poem. He held a strong dislike for New England poets and the New England-based Transcendental
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the New England region of the United States as a protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian...

 movement and hoped by presenting a poem he had written in his youth would prove Bostonians did not know good literature.


"Al Aaraaf" is the longest poem Poe wrote and was inspired by Tycho Brahe
Tycho Brahe
Tycho Brahe , born Tyge Ottesen Brahe, was a Danish nobleman known for his accurate and comprehensive astronomical and planetary observations...

's discovery of a supernova
A supernova is a stellar explosion that is more energetic than a nova. It is pronounced with the plural supernovae or supernovas. Supernovae are extremely luminous and cause a burst of radiation that often briefly outshines an entire galaxy, before fading from view over several weeks or months...

 back in 1572 which was visible for about seventeen months. Poe identified this nova with Al Aaraaf, a star that was the place between paradise and hell. Al-A`raaf (Arabic الأعراف, alternatively transcribed Aʿraf or Al Orf) was a place where people who have been neither markedly good nor markedly bad had to stay until forgiven by God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

 and let into Paradise
Paradise is a place in which existence is positive, harmonious and timeless. It is conceptually a counter-image of the miseries of human civilization, and in paradise there is only peace, prosperity, and happiness. Paradise is a place of contentment, but it is not necessarily a land of luxury and...

, as discussed in Sura 7
Sura Al-A'raf is the seventh chapter of the Qur'an, with 206 verses. It is a Meccan sura. Its final verse, verse 206, requires a sajdah, or prostration.-Verses:...

 of the Qur'an. As Poe explained to a potential publisher:
In the opening section of the poem, God commands Nesace
Nesace is one of the more prominent characters featured in Edgar Allan Poe's early epic poem Al Aaraaf, which came out in 1829 in the poetry anthology Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems. Together with Tamerlane, Al Aaraaf is Poe's most extensive poem...

, a name for Beauty's spirit, to convey a message to "other worlds". Nesace rouses the angel Ligeia and tells her to awaken the other thousand seraph
A seraph is a type of celestial being in Judaism and Christianity...

s to perform God's work. Two souls, however, fail to respond: the "maiden-angel" Ianthe and her "seraph-lover" Angelo (Michelangelo), who describes his death on earth and the flight of his spirit to Al Aaraaf. Ianthe and Angelo are lovers, and their failure to do as Nesace commanded results in God not allowing them into heaven.


"Al Aaraaf" is thick with allusions and, because of this, is often avoided by scholars because, as writer Arthur Hobson Quinn notes, it can be "unintelligible". Nevertheless, Quinn says it possesses qualities which are important to understand the development of Poe's skills as a poet. "Al Aaraaf" mixes historical facts, religious mythology and elements of Poe's imagination. The poem primarily focuses on the afterlife, ideal love, and ideal beauty in relation to passion. The majority of the poem focuses on this reaching for ideal beauty and aesthetics. Characters in the poem serve as representative symbols of personified emotions. The goddess Nesace is beauty, Ligeia represents the music in nature, Ianthe and Angelo are creatures of passion.

The poem draws from Sura 7
Sura Al-A'raf is the seventh chapter of the Qur'an, with 206 verses. It is a Meccan sura. Its final verse, verse 206, requires a sajdah, or prostration.-Verses:...

 (Arabic الأعراف) in the Qur'an
The Quran , also transliterated Qur'an, Koran, Alcoran, Qur’ān, Coran, Kuran, and al-Qur’ān, is the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God . It is regarded widely as the finest piece of literature in the Arabic language...

; Poe also drew upon the Qur'an in other works, including "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade". In "Al Aaraaf", Poe was probably less interested in the Qur'an itself and more interested in an atmosphere of the exotic or otherworldliness. The true setting of the poem is a sort of dreamscape or alternative world. As critic Floyd Stovall wrote, the theme of the poem is "one of disillusionment with the world and escape into some more congenial realm of dream or of the imagination".

The star which prompted Poe to write "Al Aaraaf" was believed to foretell disaster or that humanity would be punished for breaking God's laws. Poe may have gotten the idea to base a poem on Brahe's astronomical discovery from poet John Keats
John Keats
John Keats was an English Romantic poet. Along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, he was one of the key figures in the second generation of the Romantic movement, despite the fact that his work had been in publication for only four years before his death.Although his poems were not...

's use of the 1781 discovery of the planet Uranus
Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun. It has the third-largest planetary radius and fourth-largest planetary mass in the Solar System. It is named after the ancient Greek deity of the sky Uranus , the father of Cronus and grandfather of Zeus...

 in a poem called "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
 Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. Oft of one wide expanse had I been told...

" (1816). The name of the star has been changed from "Al Orf" to "Al Aaraaf" to become similar to the word arafa, which means distinguishing between things. Additionally, Poe was indebted to Irish poet Thomas Moore
Thomas Moore
Thomas Moore was an Irish poet, singer, songwriter, and entertainer, now best remembered for the lyrics of The Minstrel Boy and The Last Rose of Summer. He was responsible, with John Murray, for burning Lord Byron's memoirs after his death...

, whose poem Lalla-Rookh
Lalla Rookh is an Oriental romance by Thomas Moore, published in 1817. The title is taken from the name of the heroine of the frame tale, the daughter of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb...

inspired, among other parts of "Al Aaraaf", the catalogue of flowers near the beginning. Another work by Moore, The Loves of the Angels, inspired Poe's idea of uniting mortal and immortal love.

Structurally, the 422-line "Al Aaraaf" has no discernible or consistent poetic rhythm, though the meter resembles a section of Lord Byron's
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, FRS , commonly known simply as Lord Byron, was a British poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement...

Manfred is a dramatic poem written in 1816–1817 by Lord Byron. It contains supernatural elements, in keeping with the popularity of the ghost story in England at the time. It is a typical example of a Romantic closet drama...

. Instead of formal structure, the poem focuses on the flow of sound. Poet Daniel Hoffman
Daniel Hoffman
Daniel Gerard Hoffman is an American poet, essayist, and academic. He was appointed the twenty-second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1973.-Biography:Hoffman was born in New York City...

 analyzed the fluctuating meter and determined that Part I begins as octosyllabic
The octosyllable or octosyllabic verse is a line of verse with eight syllables. It is equivalent to tetrameter verse in iambs or trochees in languages with a stress accent. It is often used in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese poetry...

 couplets then shifts to pentameter
Pentameter may refer to:*the iambic pentameter of the modern period*the dactylic pentameter of antiquity...

 couplets with occasional interludes of alternately rhymed trimeter
In poetry, a trimeter is a metre of three metrical feet per line—example:...

In poetry, a dimeter is a metrical line of verse with two feet. Consider Thomas Hood's "Bridge of Sighs:"In poetry, a dimeter is a metrical line of verse with two feet. Consider Thomas Hood's "Bridge of Sighs:"...

s. Part II generally uses pentameter couplets with an interlude of anapestic dimeters.

Publication history

Poe claimed he wrote "Al Aaraaf" before he was 15 years old, though he would later adapt his claim. A few passages from the poem were first published in the May 19, 1829, issue of the Baltimore Gazette signed "Marlow". Poe first offered the complete poem to publishers Carey, Lea & Carey in Philadelphia around May 1829. He wrote to them, "If the poem is published, succeed or not, I am 'irrecoverably a poet.' But to your opinion I leave it". He met with Isaac Lea, who was willing to publish it so long as they were protected against any loss. Poe asked his foster-father John Allan to subsidize the printing but, not supportive of Poe's literary pursuits, he refused. By July 28, Poe wrote to the publishers asking for the return of his manuscript because, as he said, he had "made a better disposition of my poems than I had any right to expect".

"Al Aaraaf" finally saw print for the first time in the collection Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. 250 copies of the 71-page work was issued by Hatch and Dunning of Baltimore, Maryland in December 1829. Though Poe had already self-published Tamerlane and Other Poems
Tamerlane and Other Poems
Tamerlane and Other Poems is the first published work by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. The short collection of poems was first published in 1827. Today, it is believed only 12 copies of the collection still exist....

, he considered Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems his first book. Though this was not entirely true, it was the first work published with his name, signed "Edgar A. Poe". Poe addressed the obscurity in "Al Aaraaf" by including multiple footnotes, many of which were left untranslated from French, Latin, and Spanish. "Al Aaraaf" was published in its entirety only once in Poe's lifetime, though some critics believe Poe never actually completed the poem because Poe implied it was originally intended to have four parts or 400 lines.

Critical response

Upon publication, "Al Aaraaf" and the other poems in Poe's collection drew harsh criticism because of how difficult it was to understand. Among the early reviewers was John Hill Hewitt
John Hill Hewitt
John Hill Hewitt was an American songwriter, playwright, and poet. He is best known for his songs about the American South, including "A Minstrel's Return from the War", "The Soldier's Farewell", "The Stonewall Quickstep", and "Somebody's Darling"...

, who wrote of Poe that "no man has been more shamefully overestimated". In trying to explain the title poem, he wrote, "all our brain-cudgeling could not compel us to understand it line by line or the sum total". A reviewer for the Baltimore Minerva and Emerald asked, "Has the poet been struck dumb with palsy?" Before publication, Poe had sought the advice of William Wirt
William Wirt (Attorney General)
William Wirt was an American author and statesman who is credited with turning the position of United States Attorney General into one of influence.-History:...

, who had earned a reputation as a distinguished man of letters in Baltimore. On "Al Aaraaf", Wirt wrote that he was not the best judge of poetry but believed that it might be accepted by modern-thinking readers. As he wrote, "but to deal candidly... (as I am bound to do) I should doubt whether the poem will take with old-fashioned readers like myself". Sarah Josepha Hale
Sarah Josepha Hale
Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was an American writer and an influential editor. She is the author of the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb"...

 of Godey's Lady's Book
Godey's Lady's Book
Godey's Lady's Book, alternatively known as Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book, was a United States magazine which was published in Philadelphia. It was the most widely circulated magazine in the period before the Civil War. Its circulation rose from 70,000 in the 1840s to 150,000 in 1860...

noted that "Al Aaraaf" must have been written by a young author because it was "boyish, feeble, and altogether deficient in the common characteristics of poetry". Nevertheless, she still called the author a genius. A reviewer for the American Ladies' Magazine also commented on the poet's age: "[the] author who appears to be very young, is evidently a fine genius, but he wants judgment, experience, tact".

Poe's boasted that these early poems were superior to most other examples in American poetry. Critic John Neal, who was a friend of Poe's cousin George Poe, responded to Poe's claim in his review of "Al Aaraaf" for the Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette. He said Poe's boast was "rather exquisite nonsense" but that the young author showed promise and predicted that some day Poe might "make a beautiful and perhaps a magnificent poem" to prove his claim. He believed that if future poems by Poe were as good as some of his best lines in "Al Aaraaf":
Neal's encouragement, which came prior to publication, led Poe to include a dedication to Neal in the collection Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. Poe's cousin Neilson Poe
Neilson Poe
Judge Neilson Poe was an American judge for the City of Baltimore's orphan's court, . He was initially appointed to the court by Maryland Governor John Lee Carroll in 1878 and elected to the position in November 1879...

 was impressed by Neal's endorsement and wrote, "Our name will be a great one yet." Edgar Poe would refer to Neal's comments as "the very first words of encouragement I remember to have heard." Poe himself admitted that "Al Aaraaf" had some "good poetry" in it as well as "much extravagance, which I have not had time to throw away".

In the 20th century, poet Daniel Hoffman referred to "Al Aaraaf" as "Poe's most ambitious failure", suggesting it is a "fractured" attempt at an epic poem that "ran out of gas". Biographer Jeffrey Meyers called it Poe's "most turgid and opaque poem".


"Al Aaraaf" includes names Poe would later reuse: Ligeia
"Ligeia" is an early short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1838. The story follows an unnamed narrator and his wife Ligeia, a beautiful and intelligent raven-haired woman. She falls ill, composes "The Conqueror Worm", and quotes lines attributed to Joseph Glanvill ...

 and Zante. Some of the themes in the poem also foreshadow a future poem, "The City in the Sea
The City in the Sea
"The City in the Sea" is a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The final version was published in 1845, but an earlier version was published as "The Doomed City" in 1831 and, later, as "The City of Sin". The poem tells the story of a city ruled by Death using common elements from Gothic fiction...

" (1831). The critical failure of both "Al Aaraaf" and "Tamerlane
Tamerlane (poem)
"Tamerlane" is an epic poem by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in the 1827 collection Tamerlane and Other Poems. That collection, with only 50 copies printed, was not credited with the author's real name but by "A Bostonian." The poem's original version was 403 lines but trimmed down to 223 lines...

" convinced Poe that long poems are inherently flawed because they cannot sustain a proper mood or a high quality poetic form. Because of this, he never again experimented with long poetry. He would later write of his theory on short poetry in "The Poetic Principle
The Poetic Principle
"The Poetic Principle" is an essay by Edgar Allan Poe, written near the end of his life and published posthumously in 1850, the year after his death. It is a work of literary criticism, in which Poe presents his literary theory...

" in 1848. In that essay, he wrote "A long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, 'a long poem,' is simply a flat contradiction in terms." Instead, he says, epic poetry
Epic poetry
An epic is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation. Oral poetry may qualify as an epic, and Albert Lord and Milman Parry have argued that classical epics were fundamentally an oral poetic form...

 and other long poems are actually a series of short poems strung together. Critics have suggested that this theory was written so that Poe could justify why "Al Aaraaf" was unpopular.

After the publication of "The Raven
The Raven
"The Raven" is a narrative poem by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in January 1845. It is often noted for its musicality, stylized language, and supernatural atmosphere. It tells of a talking raven's mysterious visit to a distraught lover, tracing the man's slow descent into madness...

" in 1845, Poe became a household name and, having reached the height of his poetic fame, he was often asked to lecture or recite poetry at public events. One such invitation came from the Boston Lyceum
Boston Lyceum
The Boston Lyceum of Boston, Massachusetts, was a civic association dedicated to popular education in the form of "lectures, discussions, ... declamation," and writing contests. It began "in Chauncy Hall on 25 June 1829...

 in October 1845, arranged with help from James Russell Lowell
James Russell Lowell
James Russell Lowell was an American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat. He is associated with the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers who were among the first American poets who rivaled the popularity of British poets...

. Poe had a strong dislike for the Boston literary scene and the city itself, despite having been born there. Nevertheless, he accepted the $50 fee and the challenge of writing a brand new poem for his appearance.

Fresh off his public feud with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet and educator whose works include "Paul Revere's Ride", The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline...

 and his dislike of the Massachusetts-based Transcendentalism
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the New England region of the United States as a protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian...

 movement, Poe instead decided to play a trick on his Boston audience. The program, held October 16 at Boston's Odeon Theater, was a grand event and featured a speech by Massachusetts statesman Caleb Cushing
Caleb Cushing
Caleb Cushing was an American diplomat who served as a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts and Attorney General under President Franklin Pierce.-Early life:...

 which was two and a half hours long. Poe read "Al Aaraaf", renamed "The Messenger Star" for the event, and tried to convince his Boston audience that the poem he wrote as a young man was new. The audience was confused by the obscure poem and many left during its recitation. Poe ended with "The Raven", as the theater manager noted, "thus enabling us to make some show of front after a most lamentable defeat."

Poe considered the hoax an opportunity to prove that Bostonians did not know good literature. Based on critical reaction, he believed he was right. The editor of the Boston Courier reviewed "The Messenger Star" as "an elegant and classic production, based on the right principles, containing the essence of true poetry, mingled with a gorgeous imagination". When Poe claimed that he wrote the poem before he had turned 12, Cornelia Wells Walter of the Boston Evening Transcript
Boston Evening Transcript
The Boston Evening Transcript was a daily afternoon newspaper in Boston, Massachusetts, published from July 24, 1830, to April 30, 1941.-Beginnings:...

wrote of her shock: "A poem delivered before a literary association of adults, as written by a boy! Only think of it!" It is unclear how old Poe was at the time he wrote the poem because, in part, he frequently changed his claim. Lewis Gaylord Clark
Lewis Gaylord Clark
Lewis Gaylord Clark was an American editor and the brother of Willis Gaylord Clark.-Biography:Clark was born in Otisco, New York in 1808. He succeeded Charles Fenno Hoffman as editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine, a role he held for over 25 years...

 said Poe's age at writing the poem was irrelevant and, though he admitted the audience did not know the author's age, "they only knew it was sad stuff". Modern biographer Daniel Stashower compared Poe's stunt with the story "The Imp of the Perverse
The Imp of the Perverse (short story)
"The Imp of the Perverse" is a short story that begins as an essay written by 19th century American author and critic Edgar Allan Poe. It discusses the narrator's self-destructive impulses, embodied as the Imp of the Perverse...

", in which Poe wrote about "an earnest desire to tantalize a listener... The speaker is aware that he displeases."

Upon his return to New York, Poe wrote in the Broadway Journal
Broadway Journal
The Broadway Journal was a short-lived New York City-based periodical founded by Charles Frederick Briggs and John Bisco in 1844. A year later, the publication was bought by Edgar Allan Poe, becoming the only magazine he ever owned, though it failed after only a few months under his...

his view of the event. After noting that he refused to offer a didactic
Didacticism is an artistic philosophy that emphasizes instructional and informative qualities in literature and other types of art. The term has its origin in the Ancient Greek word διδακτικός , "related to education/teaching." Originally, signifying learning in a fascinating and intriguing...

 poem, he wrote:

"Al Aaraaf" was used between 1928 and 1952 as a pen name by the noted Glasgow artist Hannah Frank
Hannah Frank
Hannah Frank was an artist and sculptor from Glasgow, Scotland.Hannah was the daughter of a Jewish Russian refugee, Charles Frank, a notable camera maker, and grew up in the Laurieston district of the Gorbals. She studied art at the University of Glasgow...


External links

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