Edgar Poe's Al Aaraaf

2021-03-02 @Literature

One of the more esoteric and the longest of Poe’s poems is the supernova and the Quran-inspired Al Aaraaf (1829). Poe himself appears to have disliked it. As did the critical circles. I never find it mentioned in any poetry lists: not of the Romantic period, nor of any category.

It also happens to be one of my favourite poems: not necessarily of all time, but at least of the period, and definitely among the longer poems.

At four-hundred plus lines, I wouldn’t consider the length suffocating on any scale, if not for the sheer quantity of cryptic device.

The first time I struggled to the middle before abandoning, clueless as to what had transpired. Since then, I must have reread the poem five to ten times. It grew on me.

The underlying narrative is a bit cosmic and outlandish in nature. Among other detail, it involves Al Aaraaf, a dwelling star between Paradise and Hell; the spirit of beauty; the voice of God; an angel of music; a group of fallen seraphs; and an exuberant catalogue of flowers (this a popular technique across the pre-modernist poetry tradition). Though ultimately, the work symbolizes beauty, passion and eternity.

As I’d mentioned, Al Aaraaf, as far as the afterlife world conveyed in the poem, is a fusion of Islamic (of the Quran) and astronomical inspiration (based on a supernova discovered in 1572).

The narrative employs a respectable amount of natural and theological allusions, though most of these you need not strictly deconstruct to saviour the verse.

And allusions aside, I find the poem as lyrical and evocative as many of the comparatively structured cryptic (or not so cryptic) works of Milton (ie Lycidas), Shelley (Alastor: the Spirit of Solitude), Tennyson (The Palace of Art, for instance), Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (though a short poem), as well as the Russians Pushkin (Бахчисарайский Фонтан, Кавказский Пленник), and Gumilev/Гумилев (Осенняя Песня, Мик). [Those two Russian poets are personal favourites.]

In reading Poe’s poem, having, shall we say, domesticated the overabundance of heavy poetic device, the imagery can reverberate as powerfully as the works above.

On the emotional level, it might perhaps lack. The metaphysical framework, could, after all, distance the reader from experiencing the work viscerally. Lyrically, however, it more than compensates.

Composed mostly in rhymed couplets, it works very well precisely in this case that the underlying matter might otherwise feel inaccessible. (In a reverse case, featuring a straightforward, or nearly prosaic style of narrative, I occasionally find rhyme distracting.)

The several sections of the poem also employ fluctuating meter. (Beyond the initial tetra-metric stanza, the primary narrative follows pentameter, while Nesacy’s songs vary between tri and di-meter two to three-syllabic lines.)

It won’t cater to everyone, but I personally appreciate when longer poems vary structure to accommodate the mood, though I don’t encounter it too often these days.

The poem doesn’t reach a grand climax. It merely lingers at a point of a dialogue between two spirits (a ‘maiden-angel’ and her ‘seraph-lover’). And this works incredibly well, as this lingering is symbolic at a number of layers. Then with the dazzling lyricism of the closing lines, any idea of a closure would almost appear superfluous.

Overall consensus:

In other words, stellar.

I recommend reading a version with footnotes, such as this one, though I emphasize, most are not integral for grand appreciation.

Questions, comments? Connect.