1 December 2017 Susannah

Poem of the Month, December 2017 – ‘Abou Ben Adhem’

A miniature depicting Sultan Ibrahim ibn Adham of Balkh visited by angels, 1760-70.

Abou Ben Adhem by Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt

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 Sean Barret:

or read by David Olney:

Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.

  Susannah Fullerton: Lord Byron
  Susannah Fullerton: She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron
  Susannah Fullerton: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  Susannah Fullerton: John Keats

   Bleak House by Charles Dickens

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Featured image credit- A miniature depicting Sultan Ibrahim ibn Adham of Balkh visited by angels, 1760-70 (cropped). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13562534
Body image credit- Leigh Hunt, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1545040

Comments (10)

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I think many people had to learn that poem off by heart, and then never forgot it. I am so glad my poem of the month brought back memories for you.

  1. Rosna Storey

    Great to hear this poem again. In year 6 we had to recite it every morning and I have always loved the message it contains.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Gosh, you must have known it very well! I am glad it brought back nice memories.

  2. Rosemary Moir

    I have always loved the poem for its glorious sounds and the message! The two readings are interesting with the soft melodious second reading fitting the sentiment beautifully. Thanks for the memory Susannah, though it reminds me of primary school parodies.
    Enjoy your new status!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad you enjoyed the poem. It does have a great message – loving one’s fellow man is much needed in today’s world. And thanks for the grandma wishes. It has all been most exciting.

  3. This was the only poem my mother knew and could recite off by heart, it would always make me laugh when she did. It was my father and I who were the readers in my family and my mother would often say that Charles Dickens and others were the uninvited guests at the dinner table. I have to thank my 5th and 6th class teacher who loved to teach about the meaning of poems, he gave me a lasting love of this wonderful art

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I love the comment about Dickens and other being guests at the table! I am so glad the poem brought back memories for you.

  4. I know and appreciate this as a beautiful poem, but I was scared out of my wits by it as a child of about 6 or 7 when my father read it to my (younger) sister and myself. The idea that an angel could appear in my bedroom at night terrified the life out of me then. Now I find it hard to imagine why I was so scared by it.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh you poor thing. I can imagine it could bring terror to an imaginative child. And your Dad thought he was doing such good by introducing you to poems. Thanks for sharing, and merry Christmas.

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