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The poem Abou Ben Adhem by James Henry Leigh Hunt is a parable, the story of which has been borrowed from Arabic folklore. Abou Ben Adhem is the name of an Islamic saint (Wali) who gave up the worldly comforts and devoted his life to the service of mankind.
In the poem, the poet describes an incident of Abou Ben Adhem with an angel and that how he became one of those who truly loved God. The poem has been divided into two parts that explain his two encounters with the angel. However, I have divided the poem into four stanzas. Read about figures of speech in this poem.
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:—
The poet begins the poem with the name of Abou Ben Adhem and adds to his name a prayer in the bracket which shows that the blessing is not a part of the poem but because of the poet’s love and respect for Abou Ben Adhem. One night, he wakes from a deep dream of peace.
The phrase deep dream of peace either means the peaceful sleep which only a poor can enjoy as he has nothing to lose and thus can sleep peacefully or it means meditation which saints do to attain divinity.
Waking up in the moonlight which was falling in his room, The saint finds an angel writing something in a golden book. The moonlight is probably that of an angel and he himself seems like a blooming lily flower (which is white and bright).
The book is described as golden which means that it is quite beautiful, divine and precious. Also as it is golden, what would have been written in it was also quite precious.
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."
Abou Ben Adhem recognizes him as an angel because of his divine appearance and perhaps because he was a saint and thus had the vision to see the divine beings. The calmness and humble behavior of the angel makes Abou Ben Adhem feel comfortable and bold enough to speak to him.
Abou Ben Adhem asks angel, “What writest thou?” i.e. what re you writing. The angel whom the poet refers to as vision lifts up his head and with a sweet, charming and pleasing voice answers “The names of those who love the Lord.” i.e. the names of the people who love God.
"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’s answer excites the saint and makes him curious enough to ask him whether his name is also on the list. The angel replies, “no” which obviously makes him sad. However still with the same cheer and hope, he requests the angel to write his name among those who rather love mankind.
Thus the saint has full confidence in terms of his love for mankind. In Islam, Khidmat-e-Khalq or service to mankind is considered to be the most pious deed. These lines also depict the message of this poem.
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 angel perhaps writes his name on that list or simply finishes his work and vanishes away. The next night angel comes again and this time instead of dim moonlight, he appears with a bright light which probably symbolizes enlightenment.
The angel again shows the list of the people who love God and to the saint’s surprise, his name is on the top. Thus it becomes clear that those who love other people are the most loved ones of God. This is the main theme of this poem.