The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492

The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492

The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492

The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492


Hebrew culture experienced a renewal in medieval Spain that produced what is arguably the most powerful body of Jewish poetry written since the Bible. Fusing elements of East and West, Arabic and Hebrew, and the particular and the universal, this verse embodies an extraordinary sensuality and intense faith that transcend the limits of language, place, and time.

Peter Cole's translations reveal this remarkable poetic world to English readers in all of its richness, humor, grace, gravity, and wisdom. The Dream of the Poem traces the arc of the entire period, presenting some four hundred poems by fifty-four poets, and including a panoramic historical introduction, short biographies of each poet, and extensive notes. (The original Hebrew texts are available on the Princeton University Press Web site.) By far the most potent and comprehensive gathering of medieval Hebrew poems ever assembled in English, Cole's anthology builds on what poet and translator Richard Howard has described as "the finest labor of poetic translation that I have seen in many years" and "an entire revelation: a body of lyric and didactic verse so intense, so intelligent, and so vivid that it appears to identify a whole dimension of historical consciousness previously unavailable to us." The Dream of the Poem is, Howard says, "a crowning achievement."



three words were all it took S. D. Goitein, the great historian of medieval Mediterranean society, to sum up the phenomenon that was the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Iberia. The emergence in the tenth century of this vibrant Hebrew literature seemed miraculous to Goitein, as it has to so many others who have come to know it well, because the poetry appeared virtually full-blown, at the far western edge of the medieval Jewish world, after more than a millennium of almost exclusively liturgical and ingrown poetic activity in the language. Suddenly, for the first time since the apocryphal Book of Ben Sira, Hebrew poets were writing with tremendous power about a wide range of subjects, including wine, war, friendship, erotic longing, wisdom, fate, grief, and both metaphysical and religious mystery. They did so in a variety of sophisticated modes, taken over for the most part from the by-then well-established tradition of Arabic verse, onto which they grafted a biblical vocabulary and a potent Hebraic mythopoetic vision.

The best of that radically new secular and religious verse produced in Muslim Andalusia and Christian Spain ranks with the finest poetry of the European Middle Ages—or, for that matter, of any medieval era. Embodying an extraordinary sensuality and an intense faith that reflected contemporary understanding of the created world and its order, this curiously alloyed poetry confronts the twenty-first-century reader with a worldview and aesthetic that in many respects defy modern oppositional notions of self and other, East and West, Arab and Christian and Jew, as it flies in the face of our received sense of what Hebrew has done and can do, and even what Jewishness means. At the same time, its densely woven brocade, deriving as it does from the charged culture of Spanish convivencia, or coexistence, can speak with startling directness to us today, when identities are increasingly compounded and borders easily crossed. For in opening their lives to the entire expanse of GrecoArabic and Hebrew learning, the dictionally pure Jewish poets of Cordoba, Granada, and Saragossa carried out an act of profound, if paradoxical, cultural redemption. As they translated both the essence of their knowledge and the effects of Arabic poetry into an innovative Hebrew verse—and in the process risked loss of linguistic and religious self to immersion in the foreign—the Hebrew poets of Spain found . . .

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