In 11th-century Spain, where the great Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi composed many of his masterworks, poetry was, for the educated classes, the language of everyday life. In his biography of Halevi, published this year by Nextbook Press, Hillel Halkin describes the young Halevi improvising poetry (about the pleasures of wine, of course) in a busy tavern—which, Halkin explains, would not have been an unusual way to spend an evening. “If calling an age ‘poetic’ refers, not to some supposed collective sublimity or imaginativeness of mind, but, more mundanely, to the widespread use of poetry in ordinary life as a medium of communication and social exchange, the young man was born in one of the most historically poetic of ages,” Halkin writes. “Poems were an everyday vehicle for the expression of emotion; for the sending of messages and requests; for the carrying of news from one encampment to another; for the recording and remembering of unusual events; for the wooing of the opposite sex; for the enhancement of celebrations; for the flattering of authority; for the vaunting of one’s exploits; for the praising of one’s friends and the derogation of one’s enemies, and the like.”
Twenty-first-century America is a little bit different. For most of us, poetry is something outside of the everyday. But to celebrate National Poetry Month, Tablet Mag is trying to be a bit more like medieval Spain by including a Halevi poem, in Halkin’s new translation, on the Scroll each afternoon. In today’s poem, Halevi writes about an experience of religious devotion so intense that he longs for the day he will die and be closer to God. “Far from You,” he writes, “all life is dying; Death is life with You beside me.” Enjoy your daily drink of Andalusian wine below—or download and print out a pocket-sized version here. Plus, check out a bonus poetry feature from our archives, and don’t forget to enter Nextbook Press and Tablet Magazine’s Yehuda Halevi poetry contest!
Lord, You are my sole desire,
Though I keep it my soul’s secret.
Could I but do Your will and die
That moment, I would seek it.
Placing in Your hands my spirit,
I would sleep—and sweet such sleep is.
Far from You, all life is dying;
Death is life with You beside me.
And yet I know not how to further
Most my faith or best to serve it.
Instruct me in Your ways, then, Lord,
And free my mind from folly’s service.
Teach me while I have strength to suffer,
Nor despise my suffering
In the time still left before,
Myself a burden to myself,
My cankered bones fail to support me
And, my only choice submission,
I make the voyage to my fathers,
Stopping to rest at their last stop
Deep in the earth, I who once was
A sojourner upon its surface.
My young years thought of naught save themselves.
When will my world-sated soul save itself?
How worship my Maker when all He has made
Makes me passion’s captive and slave,
Or strive for the heights when at the day’s end
Sister worm awaits my descent?
How, even, be glad in glad times,
When none know what the future will spell,
And the days underwrite my decay
With the nights, half of me to dispel
To the wind and half to the dust?
What can I plead when I am pursued
By my lust from my youth to my wane?
What of this world but Your will is my share,
And if You are not mine, what is mine?
What more can I ask or declare?
I am naked of deeds, Your justice my only attire.
Lord, You are my sole desire.