SOLOMON IBN GABIROL

(ca. 1021-1058)

 

Statue of Solomon Ibn Gabirol in a park in Málaga, Spain, his birthplace. The park is down the hill and across the Paseo de Parque from the Alcazaba, the Moorish castle. In 2000, when the photograph was taken, the park was being renovated. The text on the pedestal reads:

 

EL EXCMO

AYUNTAMIENTO

DE LA CIUDAD

ERIGIO ESTE BRONCE

EN EL IX CENTENARIO DE

ABEN GABIROL

POETA Y FILOSOFO DE

MALAGA

 

(“The most excellent

city hall

erected this plaque

for the 900th anniversary of

Aben Gabirol, poet and philosopher

from Málaga”)

 


 

And now, herewith,

 

A SELECTION OF HIS POEMS IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION

The 16-Year-Old Poet

Meditation

In Praise of God

I Look for You

Morning Song

Open the Gate

Invitation

A Lamentation

Arise, O My Rapture

Prayer

Night-Thoughts

From Thee to Thee

The Apple—I

Before My Being

The Land of Peace

Lord of the World

Earth’s Embroidery

His Answer to the Critics

On Leaving Saragossa

 

ESSAY

Gabirol at the Beach

 

FURTHER READING

Hebrew Sources

Translations

Scholarship and Biography

Links to Other Web Sites with Information on Solomon Ibn Gabirol

 

۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞۞

 

THE POEMS

 

THE 16-YEAR-OLD POET

 

I am the prince the song

‘s my slave I am the

string all singers songmen

tune my song’s a crown for

kings for ministers a

little crown am only

sixteen years old but my

heart holds wisdom like some

poet 8o year old man

 

Translated by Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz

From Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz, eds., Exiled in the Word:

Poems & Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the Present

(Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1989).

Copyright © 1978, 1989 by Jerome Rothenberg.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher and of Jerome Rothenberg.

 

۞

 

MEDITATION

 

Three things remind me of You,

the heavens

who are a witness to Your name

the earth

which expands my thought

and is the thing on which I stand

and the musing of my heart

when I look within.

 

Carl Rakosi

After Solomon Ibn Gabirol

 From “Eight Songs and Meditations (1971-1975),”

in The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi

(Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation/University of Maine, 1986).

Copyright © 1986 by Callman Rawley. Reprinted by permission of

Marilyn Kane, for the estate of Carl Rakosi, AKA Callman Rawley.

 

۞

 

IN PRAISE OF GOD

 

Morning and evening I seek You, spreading out my hands, lifting up my face in prayer. I sigh for You with a thirsting heart; I am like the pauper begging at my doorstep. The heights of heaven cannot contain Your presence, yet You have a dwelling in my mind. I try to conceal Your glorious name in my heart, but my desire for You grows till it bursts out of my mouth. Therefore I shall praise the name of the Lord as long as the breath of the living God is in my nostrils.

 

Translated by T. Carmi

from The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, edited by T. Carmi

(Allen Lane, 1981). Copyright © T. Carmi, 1981.

 

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۞

 

I LOOK FOR YOU

 

I look for you early,

my rock and my refuge,

offering you worship

morning and night;

before your vastness

I come confused

and afraid for you see

the thoughts of my heart

 

What could the heart

and tongue compose,

or spirit’s strength

within me to suit you?

But song soothes you

and so I’ll give praise

to your being as long

as your breath-in-me moves.

 

Translated by Peter Cole

from Peter Cole, trans., Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol

(Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001).

Copyright © 2001 by Princeton University Press.

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/6933.html

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

 

۞

 

MORNING SONG

 

At the dawn I seek Thee,

Refuge and rock sublime,—

Set my prayer before Thee in the morning,

And my prayer at eventime.

I before Thy greatness

Stand, and am afraid:—

All my secret thoughts Thine eye beholdeth

Deep within my bosom laid.

And withal what is it

Heart and tongue can do?

What is this my strength, and what is even

This the spirit in me too?

But verily man’s singing

May seem good to Thee;

So will I thank Thee, praising, while there dwelleth

Yet the breath of God in me.

 

Translated by Nina Davis

from Nina Davis, Songs of Exile

(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1901).

Copyright © Nina Davis, 1901.

 

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۞

 

OPEN THE GATE

 

Open the gate my beloved—

arise, and open the gate:

my spirit is shaken and I’m afraid.

My mother’s maid has been mocking me

and her heart is raised against me,

so the Lord would hear her child’s cry.

From the middle of midnight’s blackness,

a wild ass pursues me,

as the forest boar has crushed me;

and the end which has long been sealed

only deepens my wound,

and no one guides me—and I am blind.

 

Translated by Peter Cole

from Peter Cole, trans., Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol

(Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001).

Copyright © 2001 by Princeton University Press.

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/6933.html

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.


۞

 

INVITATION

 

Come up to me at early dawn,

Come up to me, for I am drawn,

Beloved, by my spirit’s spell,

To see the Sons of Israel.

For thee, my darling, I will spread

Within my court a golden bed,

And I will set a table there

And bread for thee I will prepare,

For thee my goblet I will fill

With juices that my vines distil:

And thou shalt drink to heart’s delight,

Of all my flavours day and night.

The joy in thee I will evince

With which a people greets its prince.

O son of Jesse, holy stem,

God’s servant, born of Bethlehem!

 

Translated by Israel Zangwill

from Israel Davidson, ed., and Israel Zangwill, trans.,

Selected Religious Poems of Solomon ibn Gabirol

(Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1923, 1974).

Copyright © 1974 by The Jewish Publication Society of America.

 

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۞

 

A LAMENTATION

 

Awake.

Your youth is passing like smoke.

In the morning you are vital

a lily swaying

but before the evening is over,

you will be nothing but dead grass.

 

Why struggle over who in your family

may have come from Abraham?

It’s a waste of breath.

Whether you feed on herbs

or Bashan rams

you, wretched man,

are already on your way into the earth.

 

Carl Rakosi

After Solomon Ibn Gabirol

From “Eight Songs and Meditations (1971-1975),”

in The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi

(Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation/University of Maine, 1986).

Copyright © 1986 by Callman Rawley. Reprinted by permission of

Marilyn Kane, for the estate of Carl Rakosi, AKA Callman Rawley.

 

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۞

 

ARISE, O MY RAPTURE

 

Arise, O my rapture, at dawn I exclaim,

Go seeking the face of my love, the King,

I thirst at the thought of Him, burn as with flame,

And chatter like swallow upon the wing.

 

No gifts can I bring save of heart or of wit,

My cause to my lips I can only trust.

Desires my Redeemer a ritual fit,

How should I suffice who am based on dust?

 

When I with my self seek communion, I shrink,

Were I mightier far, I should still be small,

Soul and strength in adoring Thee faint and sink,

Yet sing Thee I must till the end of all.

 

Translated by Israel Zangwill

from Israel Davidson, ed., and Israel Zangwill, trans.,

Selected Religious Poems of Solomon ibn Gabirol

(Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1923, 1974).

Copyright © 1974 by The Jewish Publication Society of America.

 

۞

 

PRAYER

 

Unto thy Rock, my soul, uplift thy gaze,

His loving-kindness day and night implore.

Remember thy Creator in the days

Of youth, in song His glorious name adore.

He is thy portion through earth’s troubled maze,

Thy shelter, when life’s pilgrimage is o’er.

Thou knowest that there waits for thee always

A peaceful resting-place His throne before.

Therefore the Lord my God I bless and praise,

Even as all creatures bless Him evermore.

 

Translated by Alice Lucas

from Alice Lucas, The Jewish Year

(New York: Bloch, 1926).

Copyright © Alice Lucas, 1926.

 

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۞

 

NIGHT-THOUGHTS

 

Will night already spread her wings and weave

her dusky robe about the day’s bright form,

Boldly the sun’s fair countenance displacing,

And swathe it with her shadow in broad day?

So a green wreath of mist enrings the moon

Till envious clouds do quite encompass her.

No wind! and yet the slender stem is stirred,

With faint slight motion as from inward tremor.

Mine eyes are full of grief—who sees me asks,

“Oh wherefore dost thou cling unto the ground?”

My friends discourse with sweet and soothing words;

They all are vain, they glide above my head.

I fain would check my tears; would fain enlarge

Unto infinity, my heart—in vain!

Grief presses hard my breast, therefore my tears

Have scarcely dried ere they again spring forth.

For these are streams no furnace heat may quench,

Nebuchadnezzar’s flames may dry them not.

What is the pleasure of the day for me,

If, in its crucible, I must renew

incessantly the pangs of purifying?

Up, challenge, wrestle and o’ercome! Be strong!

The late grapes cover all the vine with fruit.

I am not glad, though even the lion’s pride

Content itself upon the field’s poor grass.

My spirit sinks beneath the tide, soars not

With fluttering seamews on the moist, soft strand.

I follow Fortune not, where’er she lead.

Lord o’er myself, I banish her, compel

And though her clouds should rain no blessed dew,

Though she withhold the crown, the heart’s desire,

Though all deceive, though honey change to gall,

Still am I lord and will in freedom strive.

 

Translated by Emma Lazarus

from Emma Lazarus, The Poems of Emma Lazarus, vol. 2

(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888).

Copyright © Emma Lazarus, 1888.

 

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۞

 

FROM THEE TO THEE

 

When all within is dark,

And former friends misprise;

From them I turn to Thee,

And find Love in Thine eyes.

 

When all within is dark,

And I my soul despise;

From me I turn to Thee,

And find love in Thing eyes.

 

When all Thy face is dark,

And Thy just angers rise;

From Thee I turn to Thee,

And find Love in Thine eyes.

 

Translated by Israel Abrahams

from Israel Abrahams, Festival Studies

(London: Macmillan, 1906; rpt. ed. also available).

 

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۞

 

THE APPLE: I

 

Take, my lord, this sweetness in hand,

and forget about all of your longing—

it’s blushing like a bride on both sides as her breasts

are first caressed by her husband.

She’s an orphan, and has neither father nor sister,

and she’s far from her home and kin.

Her friends envied her going the day she was stripped

from her branch and cried: “Bring

greetings to Isaac, your lord . . . Bless you—

soon you’ll be kissing his lips.

Translated by Peter Cole

from Peter Cole, trans., Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol

(Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001).

Copyright © 2001 by Princeton University Press.

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/6933.html

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

 

۞

 

BEFORE MY BEING

 

Before my being your mercy came through me,

bringing existence to nothing to shape me.

Who is it conceived of my form—and who

cast it then in a kiln to create me?

Who breathed soul inside me—and who

opened the belly of hell and withdrew me?

Who through youth brought me this far?

Who with wisdom and wonder endowed me?

I’m clay cupped in your hands, it’s true;

it’s you, I know, not I who made me.

I’ll confess my sin and will not say

the serpent’s ways, or evil seduced me.

How could I hide my error from you when

before my being your mercy came through me?

 

Translated by Peter Cole

from Peter Cole, trans., Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol

(Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001).

Copyright © 2001 by Princeton University Press.

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/6933.html

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

 

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۞

 

THE LAND OF PEACE

 

Whose works, O Lord, like Thine can be,

Who ‘neath Thy throne of grace,

For those pure souls from earth set free,

Hast made a dwelling-place?

 

There are the sinless spirits bound

Up in the bond of life,

The weary there new strength have found,

The weak have rest from strife.

 

Sweet peace and calm their spirits bless,

Who reach that heavenly home.

And never-ending pleasantness—

Such is the world to come.

 

There glorious visions manifold

Those happy ones delight,

And in God’s presence they behold

Themselves, and Him, aright.

 

In the King’s palace they abide,

And at His table eat,

With kingly dainties satisfied,

Spiritual food most sweet.

 

This is the rest for ever sure,

This is the heritage,

Whose goodness and whose bliss endure

Unchanged from age to age.


This is the land the spirit knows,

That everlastingly

With milk and honey overflows,

And such its fruit shall be.

 

Translated by Alice Lucas

from Alice Lucas, The Jewish Year

(New York: Bloch, 1926).

Copyright © Alice Lucas, 1926.

 

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۞

 

LORD OF THE WORLD

 

Lord of the world, O hear my psalm,

And as sweet incense take my plea.

My heart hath set its love on Thee

And finds in speech its only balm.

 

This thought forever haunts my mind,

Some day to Thee I must return,

From Thee I came and backward yearn

My very fount and source to find.

 

Not mine the merit that I stand

Before Thee thus, since all is Thine,

The glorious work of force divine,

No product of my heart or hand.

 

My soul to Thee was humbly bent

Even before she had her birth,

Before upon the sphere of earth

Her heav’nly greatness made descent.

 

Translated by Israel Zangwill

from Israel Davidson, ed., and Israel Zangwill, trans.,

Selected Religious Poems of Solomon ibn Gabirol

(Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1923, 1974).

Copyright © 1974 by The Jewish Publication Society of America.

 

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۞

 

EARTH’S EMBROIDERY

 

With the ink of its showers and rains, with the quill of its lightning, with the hand of its clouds, winter wrote a letter upon the garden, in purple and blue. No artist could ever conceive the like of that. And this is why the earth, grown jealous of the sky, embroidered stars in the folds of the flower-beds.

 

Translated by T. Carmi

from The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, edited by T. Carmi

(Allen Lane, 1981). Copyright © T. Carmi, 1981.

 

۞

 

HIS ANSWER TO THE CRITICS

 

Where are the men with the strength to be men?

Where are those who have eyes and can see?

Looking around, I see nothing but cowards and cynics,

And slaves, slaves to their own senses.

And every one of these poor beggars

Thinks of himself as another Aristotle.

You tell me they have written poems—

You call that poetry?

I call it the cawing of crows.

It’s time for the prophet’s anger to purify poetry,

Left too long to the fingers of aesthetes and time-wasters.

I have carved my song in the high forehead of Time.

They know it and hate it—it is too much.

 

Translated by Robert Mezey

Copyright © Robert Mezey, 1973.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

 

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۞

 

ON LEAVING SARAGOSSA

 

My tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth,

my throat is parched with pleading,

my heart is loud, my mind confused

with pain and continual grieving.

My sorrow swells and will not bear

sleep’s gift to my eyes:

How long will this rage and yearning

like fire inside me burn?

 

Who could I turn to for help,

who could I tell of my plight?

If only someone would offer me comfort,

someone have mercy, take hold of my hand,

I’d pour out my heart before him

and manage to reach but the edge of my grief—

though maybe in putting my sorrow to words

my heart’s rushing would find release.

 

You who seek my peace, come near—

and hear the roar of my heart like the sea.

If your heart has grown hard it will soften,

faced with the hate that faces me.

How could you call me alive,

when you know of my distress;

is it nothing to live among people

who can’t tell their right hand from left?

 

I’m buried, but not in a graveyard,

in the coffin of my own home.

I suffer with neither father nor mother,

indigent, young, and alone—

on my own without even a brother,

not a friend apart from my mind:

I mix my blood with my tears,

and my tears into my wine.

 

I’ll be consumed in my thirst

before my thirst for friendship is quenched,

as though the sky and its hosts were arrayed

between me and all that I crave.

I’m treated here as a stranger, despised—

as though I were living with ostriches,

caught between crooks and the fools

who think their hearts have grown wise.

 

One hands you venom to drink,

another strokes you with words

and lies in wait in his heart,

addressing you: “Please, my lord . . .”

—people whose fathers were not fit

to be dogs to my flock of sheep—

their faces have never known blushing,

unless they were painted with crimson cheeks.

 

They’re giants in their own eyes,

grasshoppers here in mine.

They quarrel with all my teachings and talk,

as though I were speaking Greek.

“Speak,” they carp, “as the people speak,

and we’ll know what you have to say”—

and now I’ll break them like dirt or like straw,

my tongue’s pitchfork thrust into their hay.

 

If your ears aren’t able to hear me,

what good could my harmonies do?

Your necks aren’t worthy of wearing

my golden crescents and jewels.

If these boors would only open their mouths

to the rain that descends from my clouds,

my essence would soon come through them

with its cinnamon scent and myrrh.

 

Have compassion for wisdom,

compassion for me, surrounded by neighbors like these—

people for whom the knowledge of God

is a matter of spirits and ghosts.

Therefore I mourn and wail,

and make my bed in ashes,

and bow my head like a reed and fast on

Monday and Thursday and Monday.

 

Why should I wait any longer

with nothing like hope in sight?

Let my eyes in the world wander,

they’ll never glimpse what I want:

Death grows daily sweeter to me,

the world’s gossip means less and less;

if my heart returns to that path,

thinking its intrigue might offer success,

 

whatever I do will come round,

my scheming against me revolve.

So my soul refuses its glory

for its glory brings only disgrace.

I’ll never rejoice again in the world,

my pride will find there no pleasure,

though the stars of Orion call me to come

and take up my station among them.

 

For the world has always been

like a yoke around my neck—

and what good does it do me to linger

by blindness and grief beset?

My soul in my death will delight

if it leads to the Lord and his rest—

I’d put an end to my life,

an end to this dwelling in flesh.

 

My delight’s in the day of my downfall,

my downfall the day of my greatest delight,

and I long for heart’s understanding—

the exhaustion of sinew and strength.

For a sigh settles into repose,

and my leanness leads to my meat,

and as long as I live I’ll seek out in search

of all that the elder Solomon preached:

 

perhaps the revealer of depths, the Lord,

will show me where wisdom lurks—

for it alone is my reward,

my portion and the worth of my work.

 

Translated by Peter Cole

from Peter Cole, trans., Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol

(Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001).

Copyright © 2001 by Princeton University Press.

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/6933.html

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

 

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۞

 

ESSAY

Gabirol at the Beach

 

In Málaga, in a little park across from and down the hill from the Alcazar, stands—or stood, at least in the year 2000—a statue of a famous Spanish Jew from the eleventh century that seems the last remaining sign or outpost of a Jewish presence in this coastal city that for many tourists is the portal to southern Spain.

 

The statue commemorates, according to the inscription on the pedestal, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, “poet and philosopher.” Jews worldwide who attend synagogue services even occasionally, probably are familiar with the liturgical poem “Adon Olam,” generally attributed to Ibn Gabirol. Sephardic Jews may be familiar with his long poem “Keter Malchut.” A handful of literary scholars and some poetry aficionados may be familiar with the larger corpus of his poetry. Philosophers and theologians in and out of the Jewish world may be familiar with his Fons Vitae. All in all, however, Solomon Ibn Gabirol is not a household name, and his work is not so easy to find.

 

He was born in Málaga in about 1021, moved to Saragossa and then probably Granada, and apparently died in Valencia.

 

(Left) Festival (Féria, in August) in Malaga: Parade commemorating victory of

Christians over Muslims (photo: Henry Rasof). (Middle) Relief map of Zaragoza

(Maps of Spain by Data Spain © 2006). (Right) Castle in Zaragoza (courtesy

Elliott Simonberg © 2006).

 

Like the man and his work, the statue was not easy to find, but once found, seemed in an obvious place—in what was probably the Jewish quarter in medieval Málaga; in a park, where statues of fallen heroes often are found; and near the beach, the transition between land and sea, a metaphorical transition, between the physical world of the poet and the spiritual world of the philosopher, worlds that Ibn Gabirol inhabited and wrote about. Yes—Ibn Gabirol, when he lived here, surely must have walked this beach on the same Mediterranean Sea that washed and continues to wash the land of Israel. On the other hand, maybe he didn’t even know about the beach, or perhaps there was no beach then.

 

Why is the work of this great poet “not easy to find”? Until the nineteenth century readers and scholars knew he was a poet but didn’t know the poet was the same as a man known by the Latin name Avicebrol or Avicebron, author of the well-known philosophical work known in Latin as the Fons Vitae, the “Fountain of Life,” a work offering no hint of its author’s Jewishness or knowledge of Judaism.

 

Like many of the other of the “big five” medieval Spanish-Jewish poets, Ibn Gabirol wrote poems that express, either separately or together, an unusual and complex mixture of humility, lyricism, religiosity, metaphysics, self-confidence, anger and cynicism, ego, and bitterness.

 

There is the extreme, almost swaggering self-confidence to be expected of a talented young poet, who is “only/sixteen years old but” whose “heart holds wisdom like/some poet 8o year old man” (“The 16-Year-Old Poet”) (all references are to poems found on the Ibn Gabirol page on this web site).

 

Later it evolves into an attitude that many writers possess but hold in check for fear of appearing childish. Not Ibn Gabirol, who asks:

 

Where are the men with the strength to be men?

Where are those who have eyes and can see?

And every one of these poor beggars

Thinks of himself as another Aristotle.

You tell me they have written poems—

You call that poetry?

I call it the cawing of crows… (“His Answer to the Critics”).

 

Along with such a blast of mockery comes, in “Earth’s Embroidery,” such deep regard for the beauty of nature, that “No artist could ever conceive the like of that.”

 

Ibn Gabirol is, as well, deeply attuned to the times of day and the sensibilities accompanying them. Like the Indian musician playing morning ragas in the morning and evening ragas in the evening, and of course like the religious Jew praying during these times in response to the requirements of the liturgy, Ibn Gabirol responds to these transitional times in his poetry as when he says, “Morning and evening I seek you” (“In Praise of God”).

 

He is especially fond of dawn, saying, for example, “I look for you early” (“I Look for You”), “Open the gate my beloved—/arise, and open the gate” (“Open the Gate”), “Come up to me at early dawn” (“Invitation”), and “Arise, O my rapture, at dawn I exclaim” (“Arise, O My Rapture”).

 

But of course there is no day without night, and so he writes (“Night-Thoughts”): “Will night already spread her wings and weave/her dusky robe about the day’s bright form…?”

 

Could this interplay of light and dark have manifested in the dappling on the statue in the park? Could it symbolize the hide-and-seek readers have experienced with his work?

 

Ibn Gabirol wrote secular poetry, religious poetry, and liturgical poetry but probably is best known for his liturgical poetry. Can these poems be easily distinguished? Yes and no. Poems with God in them can be separated from those without, and editors and commentators have simplified the task by separating the poems into categories. However, when organizing the selections on this web site, I decided, with Ibn Gabirol, to mix things up to some extent, since, whatever the author’s original intentions for his work, like many of us, some poets tend to disdain categories for their work. And so sometimes an obviously religious poem can beautifully follow an obviously secular poem, and vice versa. Then again, perhaps none of these poems is “obviously” anything we think it is or can imagine.

 

In 2000 the park was being renovated, but oddly his image seems more renovated in Spain than in the rest of the Jewish world—oddly because Spain seems to be reclaiming its Jewish heritage while matters of poetry and poets are, except for pockets of exception in the world of Jewish scholarship, pretty much ignored in the Jewish world at large, just as they are in the general world at large.

 

Still, in 2001, the year after the statue was visited and photographed, the poet Peter Cole published a collection of English translations of Ibn Gabirol that is the first such collection published since 1923. And in recent years there also has been a spate of translations of Ibn Gabirol’s challenging philosophical-metaphysical long poem “Keter Malchut,” familiar to Sephardic Jews in whose High Holiday liturgy it may be included. This poem, which Mr Cole has translated, appears in the 1923 bilingual edition of Ibn Gabirol’s poetry and in recent translations by Rafael Loewe, David Slavitt, and Bernard Lewis.

 

It is odd that such a poem swings both ways, secular (philosophical-metaphysical) and religious, an example of the fluid poetic boundaries of the day or of our day, or maybe instead an example of migration from one sphere to another. Could this migration parallel that of Ibn Gabirol the poet from the small, hermetic Jewish world of religion and letters into the bustling modern Andalucian-Catholic world epitomized by a small park under renovation in a modern city that is a gateway to all things Spanish. Olé!

 

The statue of Ibn Gabirol photographed poorly and ended up dappled with shadows and framed by orange under-construction gates warning, if not in words, to keep out. Could these words also apply to “Keter Malchut,” translated twice as “The Royal Crown” and once as “The Kingly Crown,” “The Crown of the King,” and “Kingdom’s Crown,” for if expert translators cannot agree on a title for this lengthy, complex poem, how is the inexpert reader to pass beyond the gate of the title into the park of the poem itself?

 

And what about the Fons Vitae? How could a Jewish poet write such a seemingly un-Jewish philosophical treatise? Well, nothing wrong with being both a poet and a philosopher, is there? Think of Martin Buber, who collected and wrote Hasidic stories of rabbis in flying coaches and who also wrote sometimes impenetrable philosophic essays that explore universals that seem to transcend the boundaries of Judaism. The Crown of the King. The Fountain of Life. The expansive reader can, I suspect, move back and forth between the universal and particular in almost any line of Ibn Gabirol’s poems or in Buber’s works; the unsuspecting reader is, unintentionally, as expansive. Ross Brann explores other puzzles and shades of ambiguity in the work and lives of the medieval Hebrew poets in his subtle and sophisticated book The Compunctious Poet.

 

In “Keter Malchut,” a melding of poetry and neoplatonic philosophy, Ibn Gabirol straddles the worlds, as he did in his life. In this poem he is not a poetic philosopher or a philosophical poet; rather, he meshes the two roles. Contemporary philosophers believe today that to fully understand his philosophy, his poetry must also be studied for its presentation of philosophy. And yet surely this distracts from appreciating the poetry on its own terms, for let us not forget, in the face of readings of Ibn Gabirol’s poetry that seek out the philosophy, Robert Penn Warren’s famous question, “How does a poem mean?” Can a poem shorn of its metaphors, its rhythm, sound, its music, and most importantly its emotion, really mean much of anything?

 

The poetic imagery shifts between light and dark, dusk and dawn, standard dichotomies, it could be argued, bulwarks of Jewish liturgy, imagery found as well in the language of mysticism, some of it expressed in poetry and some in prose, in, for example, the Zohar, the writings of St. John of the Cross, of Rumi, Meister Eckhart—the list could be very long. Sure, the reader can view the basic concepts as conventional, but the way the concepts are expressed is unique to each writer, including Ibn Gabirol, and derive from personal experience.

 

He is at the beach, on the edge of the sea, the junction of light and dark, dry land and infinitely wet ocean, transitional zone between the safe familiarity of the city with the unknown depths of the sea. Then again, all of this may have had absolutely no effect on the poet-philosopher, since scholarship has shown that people’s attitudes toward beaches have changed radically over the years. In addition, modern scholars do not like to project modern-day sensibilities back into the past. Nevertheless, the modern reader with a poetic sensibility would like to think picture Ibn Gabirol at the beach and see in this picture some influence on his life and work.

 

As a twentieth-century poet once said, “Poets are the antennae of their race.” Perhaps Ibn Gabirol’s statue is a kind of antenna, reaching to the heavens, beseeching God, while at the same time conducting the energy of the imagination from above to below, the ground of Málaga, Spain, part of it beach, almost a thousand years after his birth.

 

–H. Rasof

 

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FURTHER READING

 

Hebrew Sources

Bialik, Hayim Nahman, and Y.H. Ravnitzky, eds. Shirei Shlomo ben Yehudah Ibn Gabirol [Poems of Shlomo ben Yehuda Ibn Gabirol] 5 vols. Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1924-1932. Five volumes (titled Shirei Shlomo Ibn Gabirol) available as documents 117-121 (.pdf) at http://www.seforimonline.org/seforim5.htmlx.

Brody, Hayim, Jefim Schirmann, and Israel Ben David, eds. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol: Shirei Hol. Jerusalem: Schocken Institute, 1975.

Schirmann, H., ed. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol: Shirim Nivharim. 4th ed. Jerusalem-Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1967.

Yarden, Dov., ed. Shirei Hakodesh leRabbi Sholmo Ibn Gabirol im Perush. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Dov Yarden, 1971-3.

Yarden, Dov., ed. Shirei Hahol leRabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol im Perush. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Dov Yarden, 1975-6.

 

Translations (all of these books also contain commentary and biography)

Carmi, T. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Cole, Peter, trans. Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Davidson, Israel, ed., and Israel Zangwill, trans. Selected Religious Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1974.

Goldstein, David. The Jewish Poets of Spain, 900-1250. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.

Ibn Gabirol, Solomon. A Crown for the King. Translated by David R. Slavitt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Lewis, Bernard, trans. The Kingly Crown by Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.

Loewe, Raphael. Ibn Gabirol. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel, and the Soul. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991 (paperback: New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). In print.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. Wine, Women, and Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1986 (paperback: New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). In print.

 

Scholarship and Biography

Brann, Ross. The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Cole, Peter, trans. Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Davidson, Israel, ed., and Israel Zangwill, trans. Selected Religious Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1974.

Goldberg, Isaac. Solomon Ibn Gabirol: A Bibliography. Word Works Books, 1998.

Lewis, Bernard, trans. The Kingly Crown by Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.

Loewe, Raphael. Ibn Gabirol. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. “Contrasting Religious Experience in the Liturgical Poems of Ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi.” Prooftexts 13 (1993): 141-162. A careful examination that concludes that although some of the poems of these two great poets seem very similar, in fact they reflect very different persepctives.

________. “Ibn Gabirol’s Religious Poetry and Sufi Poetry.” Prooftexts 13, 2 (1993): 141-162.

________. The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel, and the Soul. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991 (paperback: New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). In print.

________. “Poet and Patron: Ibn Gabirol’s Poem of the Place and Its Gardens.” Prooftexts 16 (1996) 31-47.

________. Wine, Women, and Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1986 (paperback: New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). In print.

Silver, Warren A. The Green Rose. New York: The Dial Press, 1997. A historical novel about Solomon ibn Gabirol.

Zinberg, Israel. A History of Jewish Literature. Vol 1, The Arabic-Spanish Period. Translated and edited by Bernard Martin. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University, 1972.

  

Links to Other Web Sites with Information on Solomon Ibn Gabirol

 

 

 

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updated 1 February 2007

 

Copyright © 2006, 2007 by Henry Rasof and medievalhebrewpoetry.org.