Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: Seven Secular Poems

The history of contacts between peoples has few pages brighter than the Jewish Golden Age in Moorish Spain. Under the impress of Arab culture, not only new forms but new attitudes and sympathies domesticated in the Hebrew mind. Ritual found theology, theology stirred beyond apologetics to philosophy, and ampler modes of both sacred and secular feeling found their voice in poetry. Three enlightened centuries, the 10th, nth, and 12th, were marked by a type of Jew who was versatile in intellect, receptive to the arts of language, and at home in the habit of science.

Solomon Ibn Gabirol, born in the city of Malaga about 1021, was, for the thirty-seven years of his life, a distinguished exemplar of this spirit. Orphaned, arrogant, itinerant, a prodigy—composing acceptable verses at sixteen and excellent ones at twenty—wed, apparently, to wisdom alone, Ibn Gabirol made his way from patron to patron, always finding men who acknowledged the worth and paid the price of his pearls. The portable pearls were sharp discourse, a dilettante’s knowledge of almost every medieval field of inquiry, high talent in philosophy, and genius in poetry.

Ibn Gabirol’s most significant philosophic work waited centuries for his name. Written in Arabic, it passed into the mainstream of Western scholasticism under its Latin title, Vons Vitae, and the corrupted name of “Avicebron,” only to be identified as the work of Ibn Gabirol by Salomon Munk in the 19th century. The destiny of Ibn Gabirol’s secular poetry was even less certain. Unlike his religious poetry, which has been an adornment of the liturgical tradition for almost nine centuries, his secular poetry went underground and was only collected, with reasonable fullness, in our own time.

The assembled secular verse compares in quantity, but not quite in quality, with the religious poetry. Too much of it, at least for a modern, is occasional poetry, often conventional, or possibly, over-repetitive in its attitudes—self-pride, self-pity, professional melancholia. But a fundamental stateliness never deserts Ibn Gabirol, even when that stateliness lapses into stiffness.

The following translations are, then, not representative of Ibn Gabirol at his very best, to be sought in his religious poems. But I have tried to fix some of the elegance and the quality of direct address, whose congenial mating does distinguish the secular poetry. Because the text of Ibn Gabirol is a jungle, I should mention my chief guide, the text of Bialik and Ravnitzky. In choosing among variants, poetic appeal has been the arbiter, rather than manuscript credentials—where I should, in any case, be but a blindfold judge.

I have included the poem on the ungracious host because it is traditionally ascribed to Ibn Gabirol. Chaim Brody, the master’s voice in medieval Hebrew poetry, did not, however, credit this tradition. He was probably right.

Ibn Gabirol is not responsible for the titles; the reader is responsible, in “Spring,” “Elsewhere,” and “Will Not My Soul,” for a slow reading, aloud.—Allen Mandelbaum

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Will Not My Soul

Will not my soul be ransom to
    one, whose light is sun,
when “Drink and right your hunchback heart!”
    smooth lips beckon;
within the hawk’s mouth gleams the viper,
    in the bottle, wine.

“And can an earthen cup contain
    the sun?” my own heart said,
and knew not then that all its anguish
    wine might end,
in wine, its sorrows rest, as giant
    Og upon his bed.

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Love’s Apothecary

“Probe deeply,” did my friend entreat,
“Measure rapture, ardor weigh.”
But while I glossed love’s mystery
Adina, near to me and queenly,
Cried, “How long will mastery
In love be hid; in passion’s heat,
The son of Jesse did not study
Love, but summoned Nabal’s widow.”

_____________

 

The Present Age

Has Time laid low the he-goats’ horns
and stupored arts and artisans,
for all confounded is, between
men, women no distinction;
I walk among them, friend, behold
where youth from age cannot be told,
and were the beards of age but shorter,
then would Time’s end not be his master . . .

_____________

 

Elsewhere

O you, whose eyes have plagued my heart with love’s

                long malady,
        and made redemption slavery,
    if in your soul, for all my pain, still pity

                sleeps, then I
        to lands luxuriant will journey,
    there—drink other wines, and you will envy

lovers, circling round my tent, like doves.

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Spring

Now the daughters of the crane
hold council, and their untaught song,
    among the branches, sing.

And is there one to hear their voices,
through the walnut garden rising,
    and not thirst for wine?

New time renews the boughs, and buds
within the garden born; the wind—
    and shrubs, discoursing,

    each to each, incline.

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On a Host, Named Moses, Who, When His Wine Was Done, Regaled His Guests with Water

When wine’s not here, my eyes shall tear
    water, water.

How shall food the feaster please
or bread the palate still appease
when vessels proffered only offer
    water, water.

Ben Amram1 parched the Red Sea’s floor,
the streams of Egypt stank, therefore
this very Moses’ mouth must drivel
    water, water.

Here brother to the frog am I,
with him I croak, with him I cry,
for my lips, like his, must babble
    the song of water, water.

May he be a monk before he dies,
As Rahab’s sons, asceticize,
and all his sons and grandsons be
    drawers of water, water.

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To a Rival Poet

Peace unto you, no stubbornness of soul,
submit, let live—but go away;
invective hush, the tongue of rancor still,
on all abuse—anathema—
refine your lines, and in the crucible
of fire, purge your words and ways;
your brain in winter’s cold is parched, what will
you do in burning summer’s days?

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Allen Mandelbaum is the translator of these poems, and translated the selections from Immanuel of Rome which appeared in this department last month. Mr. Mandelbaum is a graduate of Yeshiva College and holds an MA degree from Columbia University. He is at present working on a study of poetic drama.

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