Abou Ben Adhem by Leigh Hunt
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
Leigh Hunt (1784 – 1859) was a poet, essayist and critic, but is best remembered today as a friend of Byron, Shelley and Keats. He also inspired the character Harold Skimpole in Bleak House by Dickens – not a flattering portrait. Few of his poems have lasted, apart from this one, which was learned off by heart by generations of school pupils.
Hunt had read the story of Muslim mystic, Ibrahim ibn Adham, who was venerated as a saint, in a French story book and decided to do his own poetic re-telling of the encounter between the mystic and an angel. The poem was published in 1834. It draws on the Arabian idea that, once every year, God takes the Golden Book of Mankind and chooses those dear to him who he will call in the coming year.
The poem is an example of Romantic Orientalism. Hunt deliberately uses archaic language (“I pray thee”, “And lo!” etc), and adds supernatural overtones, giving his poem a mysterious and otherworldly feel.
It is a wonderfully visual poem, with the gold book, the lily (conveying purity, and the idea of something growing into fulness), and the moonlight. We share Abou’s astonishment and curiosity, as he speaks to the angel. Nor is he discouraged when he finds his own name is not on the list, but persists in asking for his name to at least be added for something. He is uncertain about his love for God, but is far more positive about his love for his fellow men.
In the second stanza, Abou is woken by a blazing light, symbolising enlightenment and the moment of truth. The message of the poem is that there are many ways to God and a love for mankind is one of them. It’s a poem about the power of love and prayer.
Listen to the poem read by David Olney:
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