ABOU BEN ADHEM
James Henry Leigh Hunt
(October 19, 1784 - August 28, 1859)
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 cheerily 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 blessed,
And, lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!
When my sister Ginnie Lou and I were wee little kids, our mother started reading poetry to us. In those days there were no Dr. Seuss books that played with rhyming words, and if there were silly books, it was something like Alice in Wonderland. Mother read us Aesop's Fables, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Dickens' "A Child's Garden of Verses," and all of the Raggedy Ann and Andy Books. But whenever Mother wanted something special, she pulled out her little 1929 copy of "One Hundred and One Famous Poems" and read some of those to us.
Why Abou Ben Adhem was our favorite is anyone's guess. I suspect the peaceful imagery had something to do with it. Whenever Mother asked us what we wanted her to read, both Ginnie Lou and I always asked for Abou Ben Adhem first. We always cried when Mother read Eugene Field's "Little Boy Blue." "The Children's Hour" left a lasting impression on me, and Laughing Allegra from that poem has been integrated into my being (my sister didn't like either "grave Alice" or "Edith with golden hair" so she always said she was the "blue-eyed banditti," though her eyes were as brown as mine.) And we giggled every time Mother read Joyce Kilmer's "Trees," but only at the line that said, "A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the earth's sweet flowing breast." Oh, we were never allowed to use the word breast, so that poem just embarrassed the daylights out of us. As wonderful as these poems were - and it is a really nice thing as I age to have that warm recollection of sitting beside my mother on the davenport while she was reading poetry to us - Abou Ben Adhem truly lead the rest.
I went off to college in 1953 and my sister in 1955. She and I were well ahead of the other students in our respective Intro to American Lit classes in knowledge of American poets and their works.
For some unknown reason I did not read that kind of poetry to my children. I read Dr. Seuss and I sang Girl Scout Camp Songs to them. I don't know what my sis read to her kids but it wasn't the poetry of our childhood. Neither of us could figure out why. If I had to make a guess, I'd guess the inclusion (or intrusion) of television in our lives at that time used up the time earlier generations of kids had for having their parents read to them.
Throughout the years of our adulthood, every so often Ginnie Lou and I would be chatting with each other and one of us would say, "Abou Ben Adhem..." and the other's voice would chime in while we finished out our favorite poem. My sis and I did that up until the day she died.
Since poetry isn't a subject old folks sit and talk about, I don't know if any of my friends know the poems of yesteryear like we did. I will be the first one to admit I don't understand today's poetry. I didn't understand a lot of Shelley's poetry when I was in school either, and I have always felt not understanding was my loss. Perhaps it is that way with modern poetry too.
But just hand me my "One Hundred and One Famous Poems," the same book that belonged to my mother, and you'll see one happy lady.