Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol
Translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole
Publisher: Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
In Selected Poemsof Solomon Ibn Gabirol Peter Cole offers to contemporary readers an inspiring and surprisingly accessible glimpse into the works of this Jewish poet and metaphysical philosopher. Ibn Gabirol is considered one of most important Hebrew poets of the medieval era. Avraham Ibn Ezra, a revered poet who lived a century after him, refers to Ibn Gabirol as “a great sage” who “saw into matters of the soul’s mystery.” Little is known about the life of Ibn Gabirol, beyond that he was born in Malaga, Spain, in 1021 or 1022 and that he was educated in Saragossa, a major centre of both Islamic and Jewish learning. He may have written as many as twenty books, but only his Diwan, or collection of poems, his philosophical masterwork The Fountain of Life, and a short work on ethics have survived.
Peter Cole has translated a selection of the poems from the Diwan, arranged here in three sections: Personal Poems, Poems of Devotion, and Ibn Gabirol’s most famous opus “Kingdom’s Crown”. In the extensive introduction, Cole provides background on the literary, political and religious context of the time. He explains that eleventh-century Andalusia was a vibrant centre for the study and discussion of works from many different cultures, and that Ibn Gabirol’s writings show the influence not only of Jewish spiritual and philosophical literature, but also of Islamic philosophy and Arabic translations of Plato, Aristotle, the neo-Platonists, and even some writings from India. These rich and diverse sources, Cole says, account for a certain “universal” quality in Ibn Gabirol’s writings.
The Poems of Devotion seem to need no explanation, and not to be burdened with scholarly references. But if one looks at the notes at the back of the book, one learns how the lines of a given poem implicitly invoke texts from the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, or other revered sources. An example is the poem “The Hour of Song”:
I’ve set my shelter with you
in my awe and fear and in despair
established your name as a fortress;
I looked to the right
and left and no one was near –
and into your hands
I committed my loneness….
And here out of love
In you my mind is immersed:
In song’s hour
The work of my worship is yours.
The notes tell us that the opening lines of this poem resonate with Psalm 31 and the following lines with Psalm 142, and that the closing line refers to words in the Book of Job, “Where is God my maker, who giveth songs in the night?”
In the introduction, Cole offers a small sampling of quotes from the prose work The Fountain of Life, which give the reader some inkling of the metaphysical or mystical insights that inform Ibn Gabirol’s poems. For example:
If you raise yourself up to the Primary Universal Matter and take shelter in its shadow, you will see wonders more sublime than all. Desire, therefore, for this and seek, for this is the purpose for which the human soul was formed and this is the most tremendous pleasure and the greatest of all forms of happiness.
Parts of The Fountain of Life are written in the form of dialogue between Master and student. For example: “Master: The purpose for which all that exists [is] the knowledge of the world of the divine… Student: And what is the fruit that we will achieve with this study? Master: Release from death and adherence to the fountain and source of life.”
Ibn Gabirol considered “Kingdom’s Crown” – an extended contemplative poem in sixty cantos filling sixty pages of the book – “the summit of his work”. The work is traditionally divided into three parts, or movements, the first being something like a prologue. In the first and second parts each canto begins with the same words: in the first part, “You are…” as in “You are One” or “You are vast”, and in the second part, “Who could…,” as in “Who could put words to your power?” and “Who could speak of your wonders?” Because of the rhythm of these repeated phrases, Cole likens “Kingdom’s Crown” to a kind of “incantatory free verse”. Though written as a “private meditation”, not intended for liturgical use, it came to be included in the prayer books of nearly all Jewish communities from eastern Europe to the Middle East to North Africa and today is often read aloud at Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
In the twenty-two cantos of the second part, Ibn Gabirol traces the levels of creation from lowly earth – the “globe of earth and water surrounded by air and fire” – up through ten successive levels to the “Throne of Glory”, the dwelling place of the Lord. His poem mixes astronomical and astrological imagery with the mystical description of ascent.
Who could make sense of creation’s secrets,
of your raising up over the ninth sphere
the circle of mind,
the sphere of the innermost chamber?
The tenth to the Lord is always sacred.
This is the highest rung,
Transcending all elevation
And beyond all ideation.
Of this tenth sphere he writes:
Who could approach the place of your dwelling,
In your raising up over the sphere of mind
The throne of Glory
In the fields of concealment and splendour…
Ibn Gabirol begins the third part of “Kingdom’s Crown” with a confession of his weakness and many failings:
I’m ashamed, my God,
and abashed to be standing before you,
for I know that as great as your might has been,
such is my utter weakness and failing.
In his weakness he throws himself on God’s mercy:
If my sin, my God,
is too great to bear,
what of your name and its majesty –
If I cannot hope for your mercy,
who but you could protect me…
I would flee from you to Thee:
I would hide from your wrath in your shadow.
I’ll hold to the edge of your mercy
until you have mercy –
and not allow you to go away,
not until you’ve blessed me.
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