Commentary Magazine


Wine, Women & Death, by Raymond P. Scheindlin

A Golden Age

Wine, Women & Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life.
by Raymond P. Scheindlin.
Jewish Publication Society. 204 pp. $15.95.

Raymond P. Scheindlin is One of the few academic specialists, either in this country or in Israel, in what is surely one of the most exciting eras in all the 3,000 years of Hebrew literary history: the poetry of the so-called Golden Age of Andalusia, beginning in the 10th century and attaining its greatest achievements in the 11th and 12th centuries CE. The difficulties of making these extraordinary poems accessible in translation have long seemed insuperable because of the exquisitely wrought formal design of the verse, its use of monorhymes and intricate stanzaic patterns, its quantitative meters, and, above all, its constant rich play, in even the minutest turns of speech, with biblical allusions.

Only a small portion of this large poetic corpus has been translated into English, and on the whole the results have been disheartening. The versions of Judah Halevi done by Nina Salamon early in this century are fussy and fundamentally false in their vaguely pre-Raphaelite diction. David Goldstein’s slim selection, Hebrew Poets from Spain (1965), presents the poems in lame and lackluster unrhymed English verse. T. Carmi’s versions in The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (1981) are noteworthy for their limpidity and precision, but as prose translations they are more abstracts of the poems, librettos without the music, than new performances of them in English.

Raymond Scheindlin, hitherto the author of a technical monograph and sundry scholarly articles, has devised in Wine, Women & Death a special method of presenting the medieval poems to an English-speaking audience through a vehicle that is part introduction, part anthology, part commentary. The method does not always work equally well, but it is surprising how often he makes it succeed in conveying the liveliness, the subtlety, the boldness of these poems. Speaking with an authoritative command of the literature itself, its historical contexts, the philological problems it presents, and the scholarly debates on its form and substance, he offers an incisive general introduction to the poetry and then brief prefatory essays on each of the genres represented in the three sections of the book—drinking poems, love poems, and meditative poems about the transience of human life. The poems themselves are presented in his own verse translations, facing the Hebrew originals and followed in each instance by two or three pages of commentary on aspects of the poem ranging from sound-play and meter to the pressure of philosophic ideas on the imagery and diction.

Introducing this poetry to a popular audience, Scheindlin draws on the standard Hebrew studies of the subject by Haim Schirmann, David Yellin, and, more recently, Dan Pagis. (It is puzzling, though, in view of the attention that he devotes to the muwashshah, or stanzaic poem, that he makes no mention of Tova Moked’s excellent 1985 volume on that topic.) This is not a book, then, that has any pretensions to be ground-breaking. It does, however, offer many fine local insights in the commentaries on the poems; and the prefatory essays are apt and balanced.

The best of these is the one on love poetry, in which Scheindlin addresses the issue posed by the discomfiting, not to say shocking, fact that many of the love poems in question are frankly homosexual. Are these poems, as has been proposed by embarrassed exegetes in earlier generations, merely literary exercises, imitating Arabic models, or do they reflect an actual openness to the practice of homosexual love among the elite of Andalusian Jewry? Scheindlin may not have “solved” this question, but he does set it in a clarifying perspective by the stress he puts on the beloved as the embodiment of an aesthetic ideal in the poetry. Both the heterosexual and the homosexual poems, he helpfully proposes, convey “not primarily an experience of love, the consciousness of a passionate union between two souls, but a deeply felt admiration for an object which may itself remain unmoved; it is an aesthetic rather than a loving experience.”

Scheindlin’s translations are a brave attempt to find English equivalents for the exquisite musicality of the originals. His versions are often rhymed, though he prudently abandons rhyme when it can be maintained only through blatant contrivance. He favors iambic meters, allowing himself considerable freedom of metrical variation. His diction is somewhat archaic, often with little Elizabethan touches, including a good deal of syntactic inversion. These stylistic choices seem quite right, both because the Elizabethans (the sonneteers in particular) present the closest English approximation to this highly wrought, thoroughly conventionalized kind of poetry and because the closeness of the Renaissance diction to King James English at times manages to suggest something of the biblical tonality of the Hebrew.

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It would require nothing short of poetic genius to forge these partial correspondences into aesthetically persuasive equivalences of the Hebrew poems. Failing that, Scheindlin can scarcely avoid little moments of awkwardness and even occasional lapses into doggerel. Thus, in a homosexual love poem by Moses Ibn Ezra, the fair young man is said to be “charming even in deceit; / The fruit of his mouth is like candy sweet,” the arhythmia of the second line being a symptom of the way it lunges toward a regrettable cliché in order to make a rhyme. But Scheindlin usually does much better than this. In two earlier lines of the same poem—which was originally meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a lutelike instrument—his iambic rhythm, with one anapestic variation, captures the lilting movement of the original while he provides precise, idiomatic equivalents for all the Hebrew phrases: “A fawn is he with slender thighs. / The sun goes dark when it sees him rise.” This corresponds neatly, if not exactly, to the tripping rhythm of the Hebrew: ?f?r d?l?l? m?tn?v; / sh?m?sh r?d l?m?l ?yn?v.

Here is an entire brief wine poem, with a secondary motif of teasing eroticism, in Scheindlin’s translation. The poet is Samuel the Nagid, earliest of the Andalusian Hebrew masters:

How exquisite that fawn who
          woke at night
    to the sound of viol’s thrum
          and tabor’s clink,
Who saw the goblet in my hand
          and said,
    “The grape’s blood flows for
          you between my lips.
                              Come drink.”
Behind him stood the moon, a
          letter C,
    Inscribed on morning’s veil in
         golden ink.

This may not be perfect (the rhythm falters at a couple of points, and the lonely spondee of the abbreviated fifth line obscures the symmetry of the original poem), but it serves well enough to intimate the quality of poised song one hears in the Hebrew. Scheindlin then proceeds in less than two pages of commentary to compensate for much of what has been lost in the Englishing and to talk the poem into full-bodied life. He evokes the concrete social setting of the nightlong drinking party in an ornamental garden; nicely observes the prominence of artifice (sky as tapestry, moon as calligraphy) in the representation of the scene; and conjures up a suggestive image of the dreamlike moment of suspended motion caught by the poem. Most interestingly, after explaining that in the Hebrew the moon is depicted as the letter yod, he notes that in medieval manuscripts the name of God was often indicated by three or four yods, and he wonders whether in the purely ornamental beauty of the scene there may be an intimation of neo-Platonic notions: “Does the use of the letter yod here identify the world of the banquet and of beauty with that world of ultimate reality?” Exercising exemplary critical tact, here and throughout the volume, Scheindlin does not insist on the point but opens it up to the reader as a possibility to ponder. His double presentation of the poem, through translation and explication, gives readers without Hebrew at least a vivid glimpse of the charm, the beautiful control, and the intellectual subtlety of the original—the first time this has been done in English for this body of poetry.

The poem in question, moreover, is characteristic of the corpus so aptly represented in Wine, Women & Death in its uninhibited celebration of aesthetic experience and sensuality against a large backdrop of philosophic contemplation. Such aristocratic concerns are not often associated in the popular imagination with medieval Jewry. But as Raymond Scheindlin observes more than once in his prefatory essays, for our own time, with its growing currents of assimilation on the one hand, and of a resurgent Jewish exclusivism on the other hand, what may be most precious in the Hebrew literary heritage of medieval Spain is the ability it exhibits so abundantly “to absorb the values and the style of the outside world and to reshape itself accordingly, without losing the sense of Jewish identity.” This presentation of poems, then, from a privileged moment in cultural history is not only a delight for readers of poetry but also a finely instructive instance of the Jewish talent for living in more than one realm.

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