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Vulture in a Cage

New translations of the Hebrew Golden Age poetry of Solomon Ibn Gabirol reveal a man for our time

Raymond P. Scheindlin
December 28, 2016
© Delphine Burtin/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC.
Detail, Delphine Burtin, 'Untitled, Encouble Series,' 2013.© Delphine Burtin/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC.
© Delphine Burtin/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC.
Detail, Delphine Burtin, 'Untitled, Encouble Series,' 2013.© Delphine Burtin/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC.

Just see your servant’s suffering and misery. Just see his soul, a vulture in a trap.

Ibn Gabirol in His World

The image of himself as a violent creature furious at being trapped and frantic at being unable to fulfill his natural desire to soar free marks Ibn Gabirol as a singular voice among the poets of the Hebrew Golden Age. Two generations after his death, he was still remembered as an angry man. Yet the poetics of the age did not favor extreme expressions of violent emotion. Ibn Gabirol’s poetic peers were accustomed to presenting strongly held ideas and deeply felt emotions in a literary style and in poetic forms that depend on and evoke harmony and balance.

We know very little about what made Ibn Gabirol such an extreme figure; in fact, what we do know about him boils down to very little. He is believed to have been born around 1021 in Málaga and to have died in Valencia in 1058. He was precocious in poetry and misery, for his parents died when he was fairly young, and he was sickly during his short life. He lived for a time in Saragossa, where his patron was a prominent Jewish courtier named Yekutiel Ibn Hassan (d. 1039), a relationship that, though brief, had its ups and downs, as did his relations with his older contemporary Samuel the Nagid, the great Jewish statesman, poet, and rabbi in Granada. Ibn Gabirol wrote panegyrics in honor of other patrons who cannot be identified. As a philosopher, he specialized in metaphysics and logic and engaged in Biblical exegesis of a Neoplatonic bent. He wrote a treatise in verse on Hebrew grammar. He wrote poetry both secular and sacred and came to be considered one of the greatest poets of the Hebrew Golden Age. His liturgical poetry was preserved by communities that incorporated it into their religious services and included it in their prayer books.

Ibn Gabirol claims to have written many prose books, but only three, all originally in Arabic, have survived: a magisterial treatise on metaphysics in dialogue form, The Fountain of Life, extant in a medieval Latin translation; a treatise on ethics, The Improvement of Moral Qualities; and a collection of proverbs, The Choice Pearls, now extant only in a medieval Hebrew translation. None of these works has any particularly Jewish content—in Latin translation, The Fountain of Life passed for centuries as the work of a Muslim author—and from them, it is clear that Ibn Gabirol belonged to the interconfessional class of intellectuals known in Arabic as Faylasufs, people who had a common reverence for the Greek philosophers of antiquity, whom they studied in Arabic translation and discussed in circles of like-minded thinkers, sometimes to the consternation of peers and the condemnation of clergy.

The large-scale absorption of cosmopolitan ideas and intellectual pursuits by Jewish intellectuals and religious leaders was one of the developments in Jewish culture that was made possible by the spread of Islam throughout the Mediterranean world. By the mid-tenth century, most of world Jewry lived in Islamic domains and spoke Arabic as their native language. Through Arabic, Jews had access to the high culture of the age, including, on the one hand, the metaphysics, medicine, astronomy, logic, and mathematics inherited from the Greeks; and, on the other, the vast heritage of Arabic poetry going back to pre-Islamic times and still a living institution thriving wherever Arabic was spoken.

The Judaeo-Arabic culture that emerged found its own characteristic form of expression when tenth-century Jewish grandees in Spain began using Hebrew for poetry designed to function within Jewish society as poetry functioned in Arabic society: as a vehicle for social relations, public discourse, and sophisticated entertainment. A new Hebrew poetry emerged alongside the old tradition of Hebrew liturgical poetry; liturgical poetry also continued to evolve, developing new genres and styles partly adapted from Arabic literary traditions.

Ibn Gabirol came along about eighty years after the introduction of the new Hebrew poetry, at a time when it was no longer in the experimental stage but had a significant body of tradition behind it. Samuel the Nagid (993–1056), about thirty years older than Ibn Gabirol, became one of the most memorable figures of medieval Jewish Spain through his voluminous and very personal body of poetry, in which he publicized his own brilliant public career, propagandized for his points of view, complimented friends, lamented deaths, and celebrated the pleasures enjoyed by himself and his aristocratic friends. It is this personal voice that was taken up by Ibn Gabirol and developed in a more somber, sometimes even bitter, key.

Ibn Gabirol’s Poetry

Like other poets of the Hebrew Golden Age, Ibn Gabirol wrote in well- defined genres adopted from Arabic poetry: panegyric, addressed to and celebrating the glamour of patrons and men of stature; lament for the dead, which is partly panegyric in another mode, partly a ritualized evocation of mourning; poetry of complaint, in which a poet lays out his grievances against life or his fellow man; invective, in which a poet excoriates someone in order to damage his reputation. Alongside these more weighty genres are descriptive poems on nature, love poetry, poems about wine drinking, riddles, and epigrams. (Poems intended for the synagogue also fit into well-defined genres inherited from the Jewish communities of the pre-Islamic age.) In non-liturgical poetry, conventions of prosody are rigid: most poems, even long ones, are monorhymed. The rhyming unit is a verse divided into two parts (the technical term is “hemistich”), each about as long as a normal English line of verse. The verse creates the effect of motion rising to a point of highest tension, usually at the end of the first hemistich, and a falling motion down to the rhyme syllable at the end of the second. True enjambment between verses, where a verse ends while a sentence is still incomplete, is exceedingly rare, but a sentence in one verse may be extended by means of additional clauses in the following verse or verses. Accordingly, a poem may feel like a string of verses, or it may seem to be made up of irregular blocks of verses that are somewhat related by syntax or theme or both. Strophic poetry came into vogue around Ibn Gabirol’s time, but he rarely used it.

So much for formalities. The emotive potential of this poetry lies in its rhetoric, especially in the constant pairing and balancing of sounds and images, so reminiscent of biblical poetry, though derived by the poets not from the Bible but from Arabic models and though considerably more formalized than biblical poetry. Describing a storm at night, Ibn Gabirol says:

The night put on black chain mail—
thunder pierced it with a lightning lance.

He says of a palace in the country:

It cheers the hearts of poor men, laborers;
bitter men, failing men forget their want.
I saw it once and put aside my troubles.
In it, my heart found comfort from distress.

This rhetorical pairing seems well suited to a worldview in which harmony is the central experience, as exquisitely expressed in a little poem on spring:

Winter wrote with rains and showers for ink,
with lightning for a pen and a hand of cloud,
a letter on the ground in blue and violet,
a work no artisan could match with all his skill.
So when earth was longing for the sky,
she wove upon her flower beds
something like the stars.

Like human lovers, the sky sends a love letter to the earth in the form of rain, and the earth responds with a gift of embroidery in the form of flowers that seem to reflect the night sky—a perfect expression of the harmony aimed for by the most charming medieval Hebrew poems.

These examples show that Ibn Gabirol knew as well as his contemporaries how to celebrate a world of symmetry, balance, and harmony. But he also knew how to distort the conventions of his age. Ibn Gabirol had a taste for the grotesque that set him apart rhetorically and emotionally from all his contemporaries.

Myriads of poets had written that love or sorrow had kept them up all night watching the stars, but only Ibn Gabirol would write:

but when I gaze at them all through the night,
it seems as if my eyes are loops and they are hooks,

translating the emotional discomfort that keeps him awake into an almost unbearably concrete physical image. Myriads of poets had described relief at the coming of dawn after a miserable night of watching, but only Ibn Gabirol would write:

and as I watch, the night prepares to shave
his head by wetting it with dew,

taking his image from the bathhouse practice of turning dark, stubbly scalp into a shining dome, an image that is certainly expressive but that also discomfits by invoking the toilette. Even when he is describing something that is intrinsically beautiful, Ibn Gabirol is capable of introducing a dark thought. The redness of a rose puts him in mind of

… a girl who runs out screaming,
her hand upon her head in horror.

A spring shower moistening a garden turns sanguinary:

… the cloud wept,
sprinkling droplets with an eager hand,
as Aaron used to sprinkle blood upon his altar.

This grotesque element figures even in Ibn Gabirol’s love poetry, as when he depicts a beloved as having cheeks

… white and red, like marble slabs
all smeared with lovers’ blood,

or when he builds a fantasy seduction scene out of allusions to the biblical story of the rape of Tamar. This tendency comes to a climax in a handful of poems that are completely constructed around such squirmy images. In the poem about one of his ailments, one grotesque image follows another, as he describes the pustules on his legs, swollen with fluid:

Inside are fetuses that push and shove,
until the night gives them my blood to suck.

These images are unparalleled in the Hebrew poetry of this age of classical smoothness and harmony. One of Ibn Gabirol’s oddest constructions is a poem describing a bowl of flowers in which the red blossoms and the green leaves are depicted in terms of shame:

… like a laughing child whose father slaps him,
coloring his cheeks with shame and fear.

Contemplating these flowers, the viewer feels

… like a courtier engulfed in plots,
like a man in panic from a dream,
like people who have tripped and cannot rise,
like a vulture that has lurched into a trap.

(Again, that vulture!)

Other poets of the age wrote poetry in which they boast about their accomplishments and complain about their troubles, but, except when writing in a humorous vein, they never present themselves in a negative light. Ibn Gabirol’s personal poetry overturns this convention of positive self-presentation. He presents himself as a sickly, lonely, misunderstood, and miserable outsider; as a man of intellect and ambition that have not brought him due recognition; as a man seething with contempt for his fellow poets and his countrymen. He boasts of his vituperative powers:

My tongue is sharp as any court scribe’s pen
to praise a friend, to crush an enemy.

Indeed, his inventiveness in vituperation can be dazzling. We do not know to what extent Ibn Gabirol’s complaints are autobiographical truth and to what extent they are a literary pose. Either way, they make up a coherent, if depressing, picture. His most concrete complaint is of poor health, insomnia, and emaciation—complaints that could well be grounded in reality. He also complains about lacking family and loyal, understanding friends. This complaint could be more subjective, but it is frequent. Ibn Gabirol favors a sadly ironic opening gambit for many poems that consists of an imaginary dialogue between the speaker and a friend, as if, in order to be able to speak his heart, he had no choice but to create an imaginary interlocutor. Even this interlocutor, though sympathetic, sometimes berates him for not behaving like a normal person and usually fails to understand him, thus heightening the sense of isolation.

Yet if Ibn Gabirol really was the lonely creature of his self-depiction, this condition could have been partly self-generated, for his insistence on his intellectual and literary superiority and his expressions of contempt for others could very well have rendered a normal social life and collegial relations impossible and patronage elusive. Furthermore, he complains that his writings are not understood and that, to his contemporaries, he is like a Greek speaking a foreign language. Perhaps some of his contemporaries were actually not able to follow, and therefore resented, his specialized philosophical writing. More likely, his peculiar literary sensibility and self-presentation, so contrary to the aesthetics of the age, may have limited his appeal to his contemporaries and stood in the way of literary success in his lifetime.

Where Ibn Gabirol does find a satisfactory interlocutor consistently is in his devotional poetry. He was the first Hebrew poet (as far as we know) to write poetry in which an individual speaker addresses God on intimate terms, thus creating the first body of true devotional poetry in Hebrew (as opposed to liturgical poetry designed for public rituals). This poetry is informed by the profound engagement of medieval philosophers with the soul, which, following the Neoplatonists, they saw as a divine element in man separated from its source in the Universal Soul, and ever yearning to be restored to its supernal place. Many of Ibn Gabirol’s devotional poems are addressed to God and are organized in such a way that each verse brings together the “I” of the speaker with the “You” of God. Some of them speak of the soul’s divine character and its natural proclivity to express its unity with God or its yearning for such unity. Prayer is sometimes depicted as the spontaneous self- expression of the soul, a verbalization by which the soul proclaims its own divine nature. In such poems, the tension generated by so much of Ibn Gabirol’s secular verse, with its harsh rhetoric, finds redress in limpid simplicity of style and in the evocation of harmony between the human and the divine world.

Three things there are, together in my eye
that keep the thought of You forever nigh.
I think about Your Great and Holy Name
whenever I look up and see the sky.
My thoughts are roused to know how I was made,
seeing the earth’s expanse, where I abide.
The musings of my mind, when I look inside—
at all times, “O my soul, bless Adonai.”

The speaker’s view begins by observing the distant, inaccessible sky, then moves closer, to observe the earth, then turns inward to the soul in a smooth motion that echoes the process of emanation from the divine to the material world, and ends with the soul pronouncing the Name of God. The act of contemplation unites the cosmos with the divine spark residing inside man, and from this union emerges a spontaneous utterance of joyful praise. The poem’s message of harmony—and its implicit theory of the meaning of prayer—is supported by a perfectly balanced and ordered series of observations, linked by ingenious use of pronouns and sound effects that cannot be reproduced in translation.

The contrast in style between his worldly and devotional poetry confirms what Ibn Gabirol himself tells us repeatedly: that he sees his natural home as the realm of the spirit rather than the realm of men.

Outweighing and outclassing Ibn Gabirol’s complaints about his health and his social difficulties are his complaints about the frustration of his ambitions. He aspires not merely to a normal social life but for worldly distinction and fame. He sometimes states this directly, rising to powerful expressions of determination and vehement denunciations of a world that fails to recognize and honor his superiority. At other times, he expresses it indirectly in statements of contempt for worldly honors, loftily rejecting what has not been offered him. The failure of such ambitions is no surprise, in view of his breathtaking boasting and arrogance.

His more weighty ambition is for wisdom, and the most weighty of his complaints are his expressions of frustration about the attempt to achieve it. Whereas to his fellow man, he presents himself as arrogant and superior, to wisdom he presents himself as supplicant. For this purpose, he personifies Wisdom as a beloved female, sometimes a relative:

Sapience is mother to my soul,
Wisdom is my sister.
She is the one I treasure more than pearls.
The world is just my concubine.

And sometimes a lover:

She brought me to a chamber
marble-paved and set with crystals;
she spread for me her blue
and scarlet bedding,
drew me lovingly toward
her rivers of delight.

Ibn Gabirol’s expressions of his determination to achieve wisdom take on the same vehemence as the expressions of his quest for worldly success and honors; it is the same personality, though the objects of the quest seem to us to be opposed.

What is the nature of this wisdom, the quest for which causes him so much exertion and suffering? It is certainly not traditional Jewish wisdom, consisting of the Torah and its rabbinic elaboration, much as these provide the language of Ibn Gabirol’s poetry. For the philosophically inclined intellectual, Jewish or Muslim, revelation is merely a particular expression of universal divine wisdom. The object of Ibn Gabirol’s intellectual quest is presumably the same as the object set before the disciple by the master in The Fountain of Life:

You must raise your intelligence to the supreme intelligible, strip it and purify it of every stain of the sensible, deliver it from the prison of nature, and attain by the virtue of the intelligence to the highest knowledge that you can achieve of the truth of the intelligible substance, until you are as it were divested of the sensible substance and are in this respect … in a state of ignorance. Then you will enclose in some fashion the entire corporeal world in your essence and you will set it as if in a niche of your soul.

But this quest is debilitating. It necessitates resisting the attractions of the material world and overcoming such obstacles to intellectual pursuits as poverty and illness. The quest is also intrinsically difficult, for even the greatest intellect is limited by being encased in a body that is distracted by physical needs and desires. These must be brought under control, the body mortified.

But know that no one masters mysteries
until he has consumed his very flesh.

The body is weak; it must be disciplined, controlled:

… raging, I berate my heart, and say: “
Do you dare to give up seeking wisdom,
too effete to find its furthest limit?
Trample the cresting waves of wisdom’s ocean,
crack the mountains on the plains of intellect,
and know that when you come to wisdoms peak,
I’ll order you to count its every grain!”

The enemy in the quest for wisdom is Time, the nearly personified figure representing the hardships and vicissitudes of life; whatever comes between a person and happiness; and death. Against this threatening figure, Ibn Gabirol arms himself as a warrior in order to reach his dual goal of worldly recognition and wisdom. But true wisdom cannot be attained at all as long as the soul is trapped in the prison of the body. Ibn Gabirol welcomes death not just because it will put an end to his pain and sorrows but because of the possibility it affords of fulfilling the inherent desire of the soul for union with the divine intellect.

To a philosopher bent on overcoming Time and conquering his own self in the battle for divine wisdom, how unworthy must have seemed his patrons’ preoccupation with wealth, power, and luxury goods, how trivial even their love of poetry, when the poetry they loved consisted of conventional praises and conventional descriptions of flowers and wine, conventional evocations of Eros, all drawing on an age-old and easily mastered inventory of conventional materials. A hint of rebellion at the demands of patrons may perhaps be observed in a panegyric poem that begins with an elaborate description of a palace with its dome and gardens. Little by little, the poet animates the garden, making its birds and flowers and eventually its sculpted gazelles speak and even quarrel among themselves, and then silencing them all with a wave of a rhetorical wand:

But when the sun rose over them,
I cried out, “Halt! Do not cross the boundaries!
Admit that our noble lord eclipses you,
with light as bright as any sun!”

The poet who turned the garden into a chattering, quarrelsome imaginary menagerie can silence the garden, stop the sun in its path, insist that all turn their conversation to praise of his patron. But there is another implication: if the poet has the power to (rhetorically) halt the sun in its course, it follows that he also has the power to halt, refuse, or even reverse the praise of the patron. Without resorting to his usual abrasive straightforwardness but by simply intruding the first-person voice into his fantastic description of the garden, Ibn Gabirol has managed to imply the dependence of the patron on the poet rather than the poet’s dependence on the patron.

His irritability toward the great is evident in his gratuitous slap at Samuel the Nagid, also a great poet, though of a diametrically opposed sensibility, when he describes a refreshing goblet of wine:

The rain was cold as snow on Mount Hermon, as cold
as Samuel the Nagid’s poetry.

Perhaps Ibn Gabirol’s hyperbolically negative self-presentation and his inclination toward grotesque imagery are intended to mock the world of conventional piety, poetry, scholarship, and success; perhaps they constitute his protest against what a philosopher must have seen as the trivial literary scene to which he was expected to conform if he was to make a living from poetry. His descriptions of his loathsome sores, his perversion of the conventional flower descriptions, his warped love poetry, his tortured self-presentation, his outrageous boasting— these may be his angry mockery of the smugness of people who have succeeded in life by conforming to literary and social conventions that come so easily to a man of skill with words. Not for him the easy victories of scholarship or of poetry. He invented his own poetic style, compelled his contemporaries to listen, and berated and belittled them when they failed to understand or to appreciate his work. Ibn Gabirol never tires of praising his own poetry, but in a moment of truth, he describes it as follows:

I sometimes think God put a thing into my mouth—
a jewel when He put it there,
but once in place, it turned into a coal,
or something like a song, which, sung,
reeks with a mix of fragrance and decay.

Here, he sounds more like the poètes maudites of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than like his robust and worldly contemporary Samuel the Nagid. If Ibn Gabirol’s contemporaries did not appreciate him in his lifetime, perhaps it is because he was not a poet for his time but for our own.

Excerpted from Vulture in a Cage: Poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, translated from Hebrew by Raymond P. Scheindlin. English language translation and introduction copyright © Raymond P. Scheindlin, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Archipelago Books.

Raymond P. Scheindlin is professor of Medieval Hebrew Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary and director of JTS’s Shalom Speigel Institute of Medieval Hebrew Poetry.