Two Medieval Hebrew Devotional Poems Convention, Evaluation, and "Platonic" vs "Metaphysical" Poetry

By Tsur, Reuven | Style, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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Two Medieval Hebrew Devotional Poems Convention, Evaluation, and "Platonic" vs "Metaphysical" Poetry


Tsur, Reuven, Style


"There is a kind of academic critic who considers it his duty to approve of everything, however inferior, provided it was produced in the past, and who will spend much patient labor editing and historically justifying a bad eighteenth century versifier whereas he would turn with contempt from his modern equivalent." This description by David Daiches (266) suits the prevalent practice in the scholarship of Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry exceptionally well. The rules of the game are something like this: one may praise an outstanding poet as superior to others, but may not mention that the other poets were inferior. The following paragraph by the greatest scholar of the field Yefim Schirmann is an exquisite example of this attitude:

   Actually, Ibn Gabirol was the first to develop the unique Spanish
   style of liturgical poetry. And one must add: though he was the
   first one, in certain liturgical genres he was superior to those
   who came after him. It would not be an exaggeration to say that by
   these poems he gave our literature works that are peerless after
   the Biblical era. I mean, first of all, the Rashuyot--short
   poetic preludes to certain prayers. Their poetic form requires
   succinct thought and expression at the same time, because they
   usually contain only four-five verse lines. (181)

Thus Schirmann inadvertently provides us with a powerful tool for comparing poems of the period regarding their value--supported by rigorous descriptive statements. One can argue for or against succinctness. One must find sufficiently similar poems to compare and describe the relative informativeness of their expressions. It is not particularly difficult to find such pairs of "sufficiently similar" poems. There was a convention that poets payed homage to some great poet by writing a poem similar to one of his poems, in the same metre, using the same monorhyme, and adopting some of its key expressions. In what follows I will violate the above taboo by comparing such a "minimal pair" of poems.

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]

   [??]ehartikha bekhol [??]ahri veni[??]pi
   lekha [??]hm [??]belev same e [??]dm[??]
   meromot lo jekhilukha le[??]ivtakh
   halo [??]spon belibi [??]em kevodkha
   ani al ken ahod[??][??]em adonaj

   ufarasti lekha kapaj ve api
   ledal [??]od el alej pithi vesipi
   ve ulam je[??] mekomkha tokh seipi
   vegavar hi[??]kekha ad ja avor pi
   be od ni[??]mat [??]lohim haj be api

   I seek Thee in all my dawns and evenings
      and I spread to thee my palms and nose (face)
   I sigh [yearn] for Thee with a thirsty heart and am like
      a pauper begging at my doorway and threshold
   Heaven cannot contain Thee to sit there
      but there is room for Thee in my thought
   Why, I would place [conceal, withhold] thy name of honour in my
      heart and my desire for Thee grows so strong as to run over
      my mouth [brim]
   I therefore thank the name of the Lord
      as long as God's soul [breath] lives in my nostrils
      [as long as the living God's soul [breath] is in my nostrils]

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]

   [??]e|halelkha bekhol [??]ahri veni[??]pi
   ve akuma le[??]aherkha besihi
   jehidati lekha ta tof veti[??]al
   hamol alaj vehon malki kedo[??]i
   keratikha uvoker lakh asap[??]

   le[??]oni jidre[??]a tamid vegam pi
   ve[??] naf[??]i lekha asim bekhapi
   seliha mike[??]i libi veorpi
   a[??]orer lakh be ugavi vetupi
   be odi haj veni[??]mati be dapi

   To praise Thee in all my dawns and evenings
      my tongue demands always and also my mouth
   And I wake up to seek Thee with my words
      and I will put my soul for Thee in my palm
   My only (soul) faints for you and begs
      forgiveness for my hard heart and stubbornness (hard nape)
   Pardon and have mercy on me my King my Saint
      I will sing to Thee with my pipe and my timbrel
   I call Thee and in the morning look for Thee
      as long as I live and my soul [breath] is in my nostrils

The second poem (by Levy Ibn Altaban) is written in homage of Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, the author of the first poem.

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