While not as well known as some of his contemporaries, Leigh Hunt was an important figure of the Romantic Movement in England. He is better known for helping get the work of poets like John Keats published than he is for his own poetry. But, he was a poet, and in ‘Abou Ben Adhem’ he tells the story of Ibrahim bin Adham, a Sufi saint.
The story goes that he meets an angel who has been tasked with writing a list of all the people that God loves. Abou Ben Adhem realizes that his name isn’t on the list, that is until Hunt tells the angel that he is a man who loves his “fellow men”. This shifts the balance and the next day the angel has a new list, one that features the names of everyone blessed by God, and Adhem’s name is at the top.
Explore Abou Ben Adhem
Summary of Abou Ben Adhem
In the first lines of this poem, Hunt starts out the story of Abou Ben Adhem by blessing him. He has just woken up from a “deep dream of peace” to a lovely room that’s filled with moonlight. It turns out that it was an angel that woke him. The angel is writing in a book, taking down the names of all those who love God.
Adhem realizes that his name is not on the list. So, rather than ask to be added, he tells the angel to make a list of people who love their “fellow men” and put his name on it. Through this request, his name gets added to a list of those blessed by God.
Themes in Abou Ben Adhem
Throughout ‘Abou Ben Adhem,’ Hunt engages with themes of love, religion, and morality. He is challenged by the fact that his name is not on the initial list that the angel is writing, but is not deterred. He knows that through his faith he is a kind and good soul and was creative enough to find a way to prove it. This poem is narrative in nature, but it also has elements of a fable. It tells a story that helps to teach a lesson to the reader. If one wants to be close to God, all they have to do is love their “fellow men”. It is this love that is at the root of Christianity, Hunt is suggesting.
Structure of Abou Ben Adhem
‘Abou Ben Adhem’ by Leigh Hunt is a two stanza narrative poem. The first stanza contains fourteen lines and the second is much shorter with only four. Hunt chose to make use of a very simple rhyme scheme. The poem is divided into couplets, rhyming AABBCCDD, and so on. All the rhymes are perfect/full throughout as well. This format is perfectly suited for a narrative poem that tells a story.
Just like the rhyme, the meter is very well structured. Most of the lines are written in what is known as iambic pentameter. This means that the majority contain five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. But, there are some exceptions. There are certain instances in which Hunt switches the arrangement of the stresses. For example, line ten begins with a trochee rather than an iamb. Another good example is in line two where the words “deep dream” are both stressed, creating a spondee.
Literary Devices in Abou Ben Adhem
Hunt makes use of several literary devices in ‘Abou Ben Adhem’. These include but are not limited to examples of similes, caesurae, and alliteration. There is a good example of a simile in the fourth line of the first stanza. It reads “Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom”. Here, he creates a comparison using the word “like,” a clear sign of a simile. It helps to create the atmosphere of the poem and allow the reader to envision the room.
There are also a few examples of caesurae in this piece. This technique is seen when a line is split with punctuation. For example, line eight reads: “What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head” or line twelve: “Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low”.
Alliteration is a common literary device that is used to increase the rhyme and/or rhythm of a poem. For example, “deep dream” in line two of stanza one as ell as “love” and “Lord” in line ten of the same stanza.
Analysis of Abou Ben Adhem
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:—
In the first stanza of ‘Abou Ben Adhem,’ the speaker begins by blessing the Sufi saint, asking that his “tribe increase” or that his family flourishes and expands. He should, the speaker hopes, have a good life ahead of him. Next, he moves smoothly into an account of the man’s life, and the defining moment that makes it memorable. Adhem woke up one night from a dream of peace into a room that was filled with moonlight and “rich” with loveliness. It was like, the speaker says, a “lily in bloom”. With these great examples of imagery the poet sets the tone and creates a very particular atmosphere.
Next, the man looks around him and realizes that what woke him was “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.”
The sixth line explains to the reader that Adhem was in such as state, due to the overwhelming peace and beauty of the scene, that he had the courage to ask the angel what was written in the book. “Exceeding peace” took him over. It is important to note that throughout the poem the angel is referred to as “angel,” “the presence,” or “it,” never as “he” or “she”.
The angel tells Adhem very simply that it’s writing down the “names of those who love the Lord”. Of course, this gets Adhem’s attention and in the next lines, he inquires about himself.
“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 tells Adhem that he’s not one of the names on the list. But, Adhem is not defeated. He’s not ready to give in to despair as another man might. Instead, he remains cheery and tells the angel that he should write Adhem’s name down as one who “loves his fellow men”. This is a slight twist in the poem as a reader might’ve been expecting the saint to ask that he be added to that very list. Instead, he goes a different route in the hopes of proving to God that he is a good person.
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.
The second stanza is only four lines long, providing a short, to the point conclusion to the story. The angel wrote down what Adhem asked him too and then came back the next night. The light was “awakening” when the angel returned, meaning that Adhem was once more awoken by it. On the new list that the angel brought, Adhem’s name “led all the rest” it was right at the top of the list of those who love God and have been blessed.
Religion is perhaps the most commonly expressed theme and topic in the history of poetry. Writers from around the world, from every different faith and ethnicity, have taken it on as the main subject of at least some of their poems. Others, devote themselves entirely to God and faith in their writing. Readers should look into the following poems for more examples of faith-based writing: ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’ by John Donne, ‘The Collar’ by George Herbert, ‘Ash-Wednesday’ by T.S. Eliot, and ‘Savior’ by Maya Angelou.