“Vulture in a Cage: Poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol” by Solomon Ibn Gabirol— The Realm of the Intellect

 

Ibn Gabirol, Solomon. “Vulture in a Cage: Poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol”, translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin, Archipelago, 2016.

The Realm of the Intellect

Amos Lassen

Solomon Ibn Gabirol was an 11th century Hebrew poet who was an intellectual and wrote heavy poetry of lament, complaint and praise, devotional and love poetry, descriptive meditations on nature, and epigrams. He was a man who was obsessed with the impediments of the body and the material world and often dreamt of leaving the corporeal constraints and launching his soul into the realm of the intellect. His poetry was written in a style that did not conform to the esthetics of his age but that today is part of the way we live. Ibn Gabirol thought of himself as a “vulture in a cage” and yearned to elevate his soul to his heavens. His poetry proved to be influential and we can even say that he provided the framework that others would use. His poems are filled wit and imagery as well as beauty and his devotional poems are gorgeous. His poetry is also a window to his own life as well as a tribute to his Judeo-Arabic culture. This volume is the most extensive collection of Ibn Gabirol’s poetry ever published in English. I never really thought about Ibn Gabirol in English; I studied him in his beautiful Hebrew and of course this limits his popularity. We can open that with this book more will discover him and he will be as much of a poet of the people as he is a poet of intellectuals. I remember some thirty years ago at an Esther Ofarim concert in Tel Aviv, the singer opened with an Ibn Gabirol poem set to music, “Ani HaSar” that from that night became one my favorites. Listening to it makes it easy to understand how he came to be regarded as one of fathers of Hebrew poetry.

Solomon ben Judah Ibn Gabirol an Andalusian-Hebrew theologian, philosopher, and poet during the 11th century, was responsible for a body of work made up of meditations on the nature of the sacred, and the relationship between himself and the divine. divinity. These poetic writings on himself are seen through the lens of selfhood as he strives to understand the transcendental and the mystical as experiences that are part of and inseparable from the personal reality of the individual. His descriptions are brilliant as he portrays the majesty of the cosmos through the complexity of the individual.

He sees himself as a person being trapped and angry because he is unable to be free from whatever holds him back. At the time that he lived (the 11th century), poetics were anti-expressions of strong emotion and those around him were accustomed to presenting strongly held ideas and deeply felt emotions in a literary style and in poetic forms that are reliant upon and bring about harmony and balance. We understand that he was an extreme figure but we have no clue as to why. It is believed that he was born around 1021 in Málaga and died in Valencia in 1058. 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 Yekutiel Ibn Hassan (d. 1039), a prominent Jewish courtier and their brief relationship had its ups and downs, as it seems that all of his relationships did. He was also involved with an older contemporary— the great Jewish statesman, poet, and rabbi Samuel the Nagid, in Granada. Ibn Gabirol wrote about other patrons who cannot be identified. As a philosopher, he specialized in metaphysics and logic and engaged in Biblical exegesis. He wrote in verse on Hebrew grammar and 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 written originally in Arabic, have survived. None of these works has any particularly Jewish content and, in fact, “The Fountain of Life” is only available in Latin translation and for centuries it was thought to be the work of a Muslim author. It seems 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.

We must not forget that the ideas of Jewish intellectuals and religious leaders was one of the developments in Jewish culture that was the result of the spread of Islam throughout the Mediterranean world. By the mid-tenth century, most Jews lived in Islamic domains and spoke Arabic as their native language. Through Arabic, Jews had access to the high culture of the age , including, Arabic poetry going back to pre-Islamic times and still thriving wherever Arabic was spoken.

The Judaeo-Arabic culture that came about had its own characteristic form of expression when tenth-century Jewish grandees in Spain began using Hebrew for poetry within Jewish society as poetry functioned in Arabic society. It was to be a way to express social relations, public discourse, and sophisticated entertainment. Therefore we get the emergence of a new Hebrew poetry alongside of the old tradition of Hebrew liturgical poetry. It was then that liturgical poetry continued to evolve and developed new genres and styles that were adapted partly from Arabic literary traditions.

Ibn Gabirol came onto the scene some eighty years after the introduction of the new Hebrew poetry and when it had already passed its experimental stage but still had a significant body of tradition behind it. The aforementioned Samuel the Nagid (993–1056), about thirty years older than Ibn Gabirol, became one of the most memorable figures of medieval Jewish Spain with his very personal body of poetry and it was this personal voice that was taken up by Ibn Gabirol and developed into a more somber and even sometimes even bitter way.

Ibn Gabirol wrote in well-defined in genres taken from Arabic poetry; it was addressed to and celebrated the glamour of patrons and men of stature; lamented the dead; 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. Then there are descriptive poems on nature, love poetry, poems about wine drinking, riddles, and epigrams. The emotions found in Ibn Gabirol’s poetry is in the rhetoric with the constant pairing and balancing of sounds and images, 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.

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 true devotional poetry in Hebrew. Many of his 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. The contrast in style between his worldly and devotional poetry comes from his seeing his natural home as the realm of the spirit rather than the realm of men. He complains about being frustrated in fulfilling his ambitions and we become very aware that he strove for worldly distinction and fame. He also had great ambition for wisdom, and he expresses frustration about the attempt to achieve it. To his fellow men, we see his arrogance and superiority but to wisdom he comes as a beggar.

As I read I began to think of the famed Tel Aviv street named after Ibn Gabirol (which in Hebrew becomes Gvirol) and wondered how Israelis knew who this man was. I did because I studied him and I always found it ironic that I lived once on the corner of Imber and Ibn Gvirol, two poets who were very different in their likenesses.

Ibn Gabirol shows the scope of medieval religious language “in their explorations of nature, drink, love, sex, boasting, friendship and loneliness. They are by turns, witty, satirical, elegiac–and always allusive.” -Jane Liddell-King, Jewish Chronicle.

 

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