Al Aaraaf by Edgar Allan Poe: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

''Al Aaraaf'' is Edgar Allan Poe's longest poem and was inspired by the discovery of a supernova back in 1572. Poe associated this supernova with the place between Heaven and Hell in Muslim ideology.

Background of the Poem

''Al Aaraaf,'' first published in 1829, is an early poem by American poet and author, Edgar Allan Poe. It is based on tales from the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, and talks of the possible afterlife in a place called Al Aaraaf. Poe himself claimed that he wrote this poem before the age of fifteen.

Poe was inspired by Tycho Brahe's discovery of a supernova in 1572, which was visible for over a year. The imaginative poet associated this nova with Al Aaraaf, a star that was said to be the place between paradise and hell.

The Discovery of a Supernova Inspired Poe

The idea of a purgatory-type place is discussed in Sura 7 of the Qur'an. In this realm, people are said to suffer no punishment, yet not attain the rewards assumed to come with entrance into heaven.

Structure of the Poem

From its first publication until today, ''Al Aaraaf'' has been avoided by many scholars of poetry because of the difficult structure and obscure references. The poem is Poe's longest at 422 lines, and it is also quite complex.

If you have studied traditional poetry in school, you know that rhythm and meter can be difficult to decipher. ''Al Aaraaf'' is made even more difficult by the lack of a single recognizable rhythm or meter. Poe constructed his poem based on the flow of sound.

Part I begins as eight-syllable couplets then shifts to pentameter couplets with occasional interludes of alternately rhymed trimeter-dimeters. Part II features mostly pentameter couplets with an interlude of anapestic dimeters. Yes, this all sounds quite complicated, even for teachers of poetry, which is why many students, as well as scholars, have steered clear of ''Al Aaraaf.''

Subject of the Poem

Though the poem is based on the Qur'an, Poe seems to have been more interested in images of alternative reality and imagination than in religious precepts.

Key elements of the poem are the afterlife, ideal love, and ideal beauty. The message of ''Al Aaraaf'' focuses on searching and striving for ideal beauty.

The Search for Ideal Beauty
ideal beauty

Characters in the poem are symbolic representations of human emotions. The goddess Nesace symbolizes ideal beauty. The character Ligeia stands for the musical beauty found in nature. Ianthe and Angelo are passionate creatures.

Even knowing this much about Poe's subject matter, most readers still find the poem difficult to follow. Here is a small excerpt from Part One:

Twas a sweet time for Nesace- for there

Her world lay lolling on the golden air,

Near four bright suns- a temporary rest-

An oasis in desert of the blest.

Away- away- 'mid seas of rays that roll

Empyrean splendor o'er th' unchained soul-

The soul that scarce (the billows are so dense)

Can struggle to its destin'd eminence,-

To distant spheres, from time to time, she rode

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