Sacred Texts  Judaism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Selected Religious Poems of Solomon ibn Gabirol, tr. by Israel Zangwill, [1923], at

p. xlv



In his well-known "Romanzero" the greatest modern poet of Jewish birth, Heinrich Heine, satirizing the ignorance of Hebrew literature, wrote—I cite an early translation of my own which preserves the metre of the original—

Jewish girls of wealth and fashion,
Future mothers of free burghers,
Culling all the latest knowledge
In the dearest Paris pensions,

Know by heart the names of mummies,
All the stuffed Egyptian Pharaohs,
Merovingian shadow-monarchs
Whose perukes were yet unpowdered,

Also pig-tailed Kings of China,
Porcelain-pagoda princes,
Pat from tongue it all comes tripping.
Clever girls! But oh, good heavens!

Should you ask about the famous
Names that formed the golden triad
Of our Jewish constellation,
Our Arabic-Spanish singers, p. xlvi

These three stars if you should ask of,
Our Jehuda ben Halevi,
Or our Solomon Gabirol,
Or our Moses Ibn Ezra,

Should you bring up names of that sort,
Then with large eyes will regard you
All the girls, the pretty darlings,
Dumb-struck, mud-stuck, disconcerted.

Later in the same poem, Ibn Gabirol is singled out as the thinker among poets, and the poet for thinkers; and finally our eleventh-century singer is compared to that troubadour, that mediæval nightingale, who delicately in the dusk of the Dark Ages sang "The Romance of the Rose." Gabirol, says Heine, is the nightingale of piety, the consecrated Minnesinger whose rose was God.


The present volume of translations from this rare singer of the Ghetto limits itself to such of his poems as have been incorporated in or designed for the liturgy of the Synagogue, though it is far from exhausting even these. But Gabirol is not exclusively a devotional poet.

All the arts began with religion, and in Gabirol we catch sight of Hebrew poetry in its period of transition when it was passing from a purely

p. xlvii

devotional to a secular character. Even the devotional begins to root itself not in tradition but in the individual experience. In a remarkable poem beginning "Three witnesses have I," Gabirol speaks of the starry world without and the moral law within almost with the modern cosmic mysticism of a Kant or a Wordsworth. There is thus a double movement by which the devotional is freeing itself from the hypnotism of the Biblical and liturgical Anschauung and taking on a personal quality, while at the same time the subject-matter is enlarging itself with elegies, epigrams, and Horatian epistles. Gabirol’s Hiawatha-like jingle on the meanness of his host who failed to give him wine—

"May the man, his son or daughter
 Be for ever doomed to water!"

[paragraph continues] —is sometimes cited as the first secular lyric in Hebrew poetry; but although this is not accurate, little that is prior has been preserved except versified mnemonics about the calendar, or grammar, and verse of a gnomic if not a pious character. While the Bible itself is full of matchless poetry, both primitive and cultured, the purely profane element was so discountenanced in this thesaurus of national

p. xlviii

literature that "the Song of Solomon" slipped in only as a religious allegory, "Ecclesiastes" scraped through under the ægis of Solomon, while "Job" was ascribed to Moses. And this tendency to make Hebrew literature synonymous with sacred literature was aggravated by the limitations of Jewish life in the Diaspora, whose sole organ of common consciousness was the Synagogue with its holy lore.

The Jew, living as a "Son of the Law," and continuing to live only because he was a "Son of the Law," did not readily develop a lay literature. Life circled round the Bible. And Torah, not wine, woman, or song, was the poet’s expected theme. Luther’s trio of themes came along more copiously in Moses Ibn Ezra and Judah ha-Levi; in al-Ḥarizi we get a semi-burlesque Hudibras method, modelled on the Makamat of Ḥariri, and in our own day this evolution from liturgical literature has reached its climax in the nature-poetry of a Jacob Cohen, the sensuous strains of a Shneor or the massive bitterness of a Byalik.

But in the Spanish-Hebrew period we see the poet, like some tropical lung-fish that can breathe either in air or water, moving equally between the sacred and the profane. Gabirol is the first Hebrew poet to use the secular image of

p. xlix

the Muse, which he figures as a dove, white as a lily of Sharon, with golden wings and a bell-like voice. He is the first to paint the sunset or the autumn, and in a Shelley-like image to show us Night spreading her wings over the tired Day. And he is the first Hebrew poet to handle philosophy.

If he is not also the first to handle rhyme, he is the first great singer to cramp himself with that exhilarating restriction. Rhyme was not an element of Hebrew poetry at its Biblical period. And as Joseph Jacobs has pointed out, Hebrew lends itself less freely to rhyme than Arabic, having fewer of those primitive inflections which smooth the poet’s path, with the result that much of Hebrew rhyming is in o or im or os in damnable iteration. 'Rhyme,' to quote from my book, The Voice of Jerusalem, 'was not introduced into Hebrew poetry before the seventh century, when it appears in the Piyyutim of Yannai. Milton calls rhyme "that barbarous invention to set off lame metre"; but there was not even metre in Hebrew then. That was not brought in till three centuries later, by Dunash ibn Labrat, a young poet of Bagdad origin, who probably picked it up from the Fez poets. "Such a thing hath hitherto been unknown in Israel," said Saadia, the great Gaon

p. l

of Sura, when Dunash showed him Hebrew jigging to Arab measures.'

Without rhyme or metre, what was it that constituted Hebrew poetry? Some say parallelism. But even parallelism was not an indispensable element. The only indispensable element of Hebrew poetry was accent. In short what we now call free verse is closest to the old Hebrew form of expression. Sincerity, not art, is the first quest of the young poet of to-day. Art was never in the thought of a Biblical singer, so consumed was he by sincerity. And thus in free verse do the ends of the ages meet.

But Gabirol cumbers himself both with rhyme and metre, for he is almost Swinburnian in his technical mastery, in his power of dancing in fetters—witness the amazing virtuosity of his versified Hebrew grammar. I have made no effort to follow his exact verse-schemes, well content if I could get an analogous effect by the use of English measures appropriate to his theme. To translate him into bare prose seems to me the only license unpermissible, for poetry is largely verbal enchantment, and to leave out the singing element is to falsify the original even more badly than by mistranslation. But the effort to reproduce this singing element literally, especially the effort to render the exact Hebrew

p. li

rhyme-scheme, would equally conduce to falsification. Butler shrewdly pointed out in "Hudibras" that

"Rhyme the rudder is of verses
 By which like ships they steer their courses."

Even if Gabirol himself never had to deviate from his meaning or from lucidity to steer round rhyming point, it is almost impossible for translators not to tack or divagate, with the result that many versified versions of Hebrew poetry are so padded out for rhyme’s sake as occasionally to conceal altogether the structure of the original. I do not suppose I have always escaped this reef, but only in one poem—"Benediction"—have I permitted myself any marked expansion of the theme, and here the original seemed to be swelling gloriously with the implied but unsaid.


In translating the Keter Malkut, I have regarded a rhyme-scheme as apt to mislead me from my original. It is noteworthy that in this his greatest poem, Gabirol, though he conserves rhyme largely, throws over the jingle of a fixed metre, as if to give sincerity and spontaneousness

p. lii

freer scope. It is as loose as the Arabic Makamat, and each stanza being a law to itself, the poet can follow the ebb and flow of his mood, trammelled only by the need of rhyme. If, then, I rid him of his last fetters, I bring back his poem to a truer Hebraism.

It will be a great proof of Gabirol’s domination of rhyme if, when stripped of it, he is seen to have kept his meaning undistorted by it, and to recall at times the great note of his Old Testament predecessors. For, trammelled by neither rhyme nor metre, and aiming only at this Old Testament simplicity, I have escaped all temptation to eke out the poet’s plain meaning. You might use me as a crib. And where Gabirol—as so often—is quoting, I have generally adopted the ultra-accurate version of the Bible which we owe to the Jewish scholars of America.

This trick of quotation, which is almost, though not quite, unknown in other poetic literature—even Wordsworth uses it—may puzzle a hearer unfamiliar with neo-Hebrew poetry. It is not like our own decaying practice of classical or of Shakespearean quotation, a mere illumination of the argument, nor is it that rich literary allusiveness of a Hazlitt or a Lamb; it rests upon the Bible almost as on a foundation, to the cramping and even the distorting of the poet’s

p. liii

own vision. To the mediaeval Jew the quotation with which Gabirol closed every stanza of his Keter Malkut seemed only an additional beauty. The Bible, regarded as a uniform whole, everywhere inspired and inspiring, about which you could move per saltum, skipping from Genesis to Micah, or from Job to Chronicles, was "familiar in our mouths as household words." And this familiarity bred not contempt but enhanced delight. The quotation seemed to form the climax up to which the whole stanza was built, and the more unexpected the application, or rather the misapplication, and the more it was applied to a context or a category of ideas with which it had originally no connection, the more double entendre, so to speak, the greater the pleasure, as at a crowning stroke of wit. It is as if Punch speaking of Joseph Chamberlain should say "a generation arose that knew not Joseph." This sort of punning, legitimate enough in a Hudibras-like work such as al-Ḥarizi’s Taḥkemoni, becomes grotesque in a poem of the sublimity of the Keter Malkut, and it reaches its acme of bad taste when "that white bright spot" mentioned in the Levitical diagnosis of leprosy is used as an image of the moon—Shelley’s "orbèd maiden with white fire laden."

It says much for Gabirol’s genius that despite

p. liv

the familiarity with every nook and cranny of the Old Testament, which his quotations evince, he was yet able to add so much of his own to these second-hand thoughts, and to keep such a personal vision of the universe.

These quotations cannot, of course, be eliminated from my version. But there is one last feature of Gabirol’s poetry which I have had to disregard—the alphabetical acrostic. An English book in my possession, called "Literary Frivolities," not unjustifiably includes acrostic verses among them. I fear that Gabirol’s acrostical frivolity cannot be attributed, like his rhymes, to the Arab environment, for it seems pan-Semitic, being found in Babylonian, Samaritan and Syrian literature, as well as in copious and curious passages of the Old Testament, notably Psalm CXIX and the first four chapters of Lamentations.

I remember, in the remote period of my courtship, composing, with possibly hereditary Semitism, a sonnet on my future wife, the first letters of each line forming her name. She was much touched by the contents of the poem till I proudly pointed out the acrostic, when her emotion changed to disgust. She could not realize that a genuine feeling could be expressed with such ingenuity. A similar suspicion haunts us

p. lv

when we read the mediaeval Hebrew poems that run from Aleph to Tav, or—worse still—ostentate the author’s name. It is fortunate that in my love-poem I at least put the lady’s name and not my own. Yet that is what Gabirol is always doing, though the object of his love is God. There is a whole sheaf of poems by him with the acrostic "Shlomoh" or "Ani Shlomoh" (like "Here we are again"), sometimes modestly varied by "Shlomoh ha-Katon "("Solomon the Small").

And yet all art consists in conquering the material difficulties of the medium. Just as Michael Angelo in the Sistine Chapel succeeded in expressing the noble poetry of creation, though he had to do it on the ceiling, and paint awkwardly upwards, so Gabirol, like Swinburne, has triumphed over the limitations set by his own pride of craftsmanship. Consider only that spiritual gem, "At the Dawn," which nobody would guess was in the original a Solomonian acrostic.

It is now in the New Year’s Service, and who shall deny its right to that pride of place, even though the familiar Shlomoh skips from stanza to stanza? A similar triumph was won in the sixteenth century by the author of Lechah Dodi, which, despite its inclusion of Solomon ha-Levi’s name and its intricate rhyme-scheme, has been translated into German by Herder and Heine,

p. lvi

and is characterized by Schechter as "perhaps one of the finest pieces of religious poetry in existence." This Poetry of Ingenuity, with its quotations, acrostics and over-rhymings, of which Kalir was the greatest exemplar, though not the initiator, has been aptly compared by Rabbi Cohen of Sydney to the "Emblem" poetry in the seventeenth century English literature, the wings, cups, harps and crosses into which true poets like Quarles, Wither and George Herbert fashioned their verses.

Fortunately the Keter Malkut is singularly free from Gabirol’s acrostical ingeniosity. He falls into it only with his Ashamnu Bagadnu—that alphabetical confession of Sin which is the poet’s sole sin against sincerity of art. And yet there is something to be said for the effect of completeness which the poet aimed at by sinning his sin with an Aleph, and a Beth, till sin exhausted itself in the ultima Thule of the Tav. It has been alleged that the acrostic in the Psalms was designed to aid the worshipper’s memory in the days before prayer-books. I am more inclined to regard it as inspired by this same desire to express completeness—what was the object of the alliteration of the Echah but to express the totality of desolation? Compare, too, the alphabetical Piyyutim which render the greatness of

p. lvii

[paragraph continues] God. But whether the justification be æsthetic or mnemonic, Gabirol’s confessional in the Keter Malkut may plead either ground.


As the astronomic portions of the Keter Malkut seem to be omitted, as if in shame, from modern German versions of the poem, it may be as well to set its science in its historic perspective. Gabirol was a contemporary and fellow-countryman of the Cid, Spain’s national hero. Born about 1020, the astronomy he absorbed in Saragossa was the astronomy of the eleventh century. And Copernicus did not publish his system till the middle of the sixteenth. Dante in the thirteenth century gives us in his Convito Ten Heavens, each symbolizing a branch of study, and the last corresponding to the Divine Science, Theology. These Ten Heavens reappear in his Paradiso, nine revolving round the earth, with a fixed all-encircling Empyrean. Gabirol’s chart of the celestial vault is of the same order as the Tuscan poet’s, and his poetry in its æsthetic aspect is as little affected by the inaccuracy of his astronomy—if indeed in these days of Einstein there is anything but a relative inaccuracy.

Maimonides, born half-way between Gabirol and Dante, in his introduction to the Mishnah

p. lviii

[paragraph continues] Tractate Zera‘im, remarks on the astonishment of the ignorant on learning that the sun, which appears to them as a small flat sphere, is a round body one hundred and sixty-six and three-eighths times greater than the earth, and the philosopher himself is amazed at the unerring science which can calculate celestial dimensions even to a three-eighths. We now believe that "unerring science" was wrong by considerably over a million; not unlike a modern Chancellor of the Exchequer. But the religious emotion which the poet desires to evoke by his figures is as little impaired by such errors as the beauty of his poetry: on the contrary the emotion is augmented by our enhanced sense of the vastness and mystery of the universe. If a sun, one hundred and seventy times as large as the earth sufficed to arouse Gabirol’s cosmic rapture, how much more overwhelming is a sun over a million and a quarter times the volume of the globe that holds our petty fortunes, a sun down one of whose rifts, as a Royal Society lecturer said the other day, the earth could be dropped and lost like a boy’s marble.

Nor need we be put off by the poet’s astrology, that pseudo-science which has still not been slain outright, and of which our Mazzol tob is a survival. In Gabirol’s day, and long after, it occupied

p. lix

no less proud a place than astronomy, and Jews, owing to their Chaldean origin, were regarded as peculiarly awesome Masters of the horoscope. And in truth they both produced famous astrologers of their own and translated the Arabic astrologers into Hebrew or Spanish. A century after Gabirol, Maimonides derided astrology, but a century after Maimonides, Dante is found still ranking it as the science of the seventh heaven, above Grammar, Music, .and even Geometry. Indeed, Gabirol and Dante are at one in their conception of science, which differs literally toto caelo from the modern. For if Gabirol admits planetary influences, these are but secondary agencies: to our poet the force that set the planets in motion has never abdicated, and he still salutes, like the great last line of the Divine Comedy,

"The love that moves the heaven and all the stars."


Next: 1. At the Dawn