Of all the Jewish medieval poets & philosophers who flourished in the golden age of Andalucian culture, Solomon ibn Gabirol was the greatest. This collection of devotional poetry was translated into English verse by Israel Zangwill from a critical text by Professor Israel Davidson who was an authority on Hebrew poetry and Jewish liturgy.
It is introduced by Davidson who provides biographical information and discusses the nature and impact of Gabirol's timeless work, as well as those of his contemporaries. Born in Malaga in 1021 or 1022, Solomon was a prominent philosopher and poet, and a contemporary of El Cid, Spain's national hero. He belonged to the third period of Hebrew poetry in Spain.
Orphaned at a young age, Gabirol spent his formative years in Saragossa and began his literary career when he was about sixteen. He was supported by patrons, first Yekutiel then Samuel HaNagid. His other literary works include Biblical exegesis, Hebrew grammar, philosophy & ethics. More than 300 poems survive, half secular and half religious. Written in Arabic, only two of his more than 20 books on ethics and philosophy have survived, one of which is the famous Fountain of Life (Fons Vitae).
The influence of the Sefer Yetzira on his poetry is marked, and his lyrics have a permanent appeal to the emotions, aspirations and yearning of mankind. Davidson quotes from Moses ben Ezra and Harizi, two medieval critics who appreciated his work. He concludes by affirming that Gabirol's words are a sanctuary to which the weary in heart turn for consolation, the troubled in mind for guidance and all lovers of beauty for partaking in exuberant joy.
Then follows a chapter on the translation by Israel Zangwill. The poems in this volume were all incorporated or designed for the liturgy of the synagogue. In them, one encounters the devotional spirit rooting itself more in individual expression than in tradition. There is a strong personal quality about them. Gabirol was the first Hebrew poet to use secular images and philosophy in his verse and also the first really great Hebrew poet to employ rhyme and metre.
Before Gabirol, rhyme or metre was not used much. Biblical poetry has parallelism but it is mainly the accent that counts; in other words, it was free verse. The English translations are in rhyme in order to preserve the singing element, except for the magnificent Keter Malkut (The Royal Crown) on pp. 82 to 123. The original Hebrew rhymes but has no fixed metre. A long philosophical poem, its exquisite beauty of expression complements its profundity of thought.
There are 50 poems, from At The Dawn to The Royal Crown. The English versions are on the left page and the Hebrew on the right. They are most moving and spiritually uplifting, especially those dealing with the wounded heart of Israel. They are like a melody of eternal hope which brings the reader closer to God. All of them are stirring and memorable, but those I remember well after the first reading include The Messiah, Before My King, My Refuge, Ecstasy, The Redemption, God and Israel, My Lord and King, Lord of the World and Lord of Heaven.
The book concludes with Notes on the Introduction, Notes on the Text (on the poems - mainly references to scripture and grammatical explanations), a Hebrew version of the previous and a short section titled Technical Payyetanic Terms in this Collection. These appear to be liturgical elements preceding prayers and benedictions, probably the same as what is called "antiphons" in Christian devotional music, for example the work of Hildegard von Bingen.
For those interested in Jewish devotional music from around the world, I recommend the CD Kabbalah Music: Songs of the Jewish Mystics by Laura Wetzler. It includes three tracks from the Spanish Sephardi tradition: Kol Haneshama Meditation, Respondemos and Yom Zeh L'Yisrael. Youth by Matisyahu is a splendid example of a more contemporary and popular type of spiritual music in the Jewish tradition.
Complete list of poems:
At the Dawn My Soul Shall Declare The Messiah Invitation Three Things Conspire Before My King Open the Gate Pour Out Thy Heart Six Years Were Decreed `Tis Joy to Me My Refuge Ecstasy I Have Sought Thee Daily Humble of Spirit For a Marriage The Sun The Redemption God and Israel Reassurance Duologue Establish Peace Judgment Prayer for the Hazzan Two Things Have Met For New Year's Day My Lord and King Blow Ye the Trumpet Let the Isles Rejoice For the Day of Memorial God Dwelleth High For Atonement Eve Lord of the World Lord, What is Man? The Day of Judgment Lamentation The Dwellers in Clay Almighty God The Lord of Heaven Ask of Me Forget Thy Affliction To My Soul Look up to Thy Maker Invocation Benediction My Heart Clamours Arise, O My Rapture Passover Psalm O God, My Sun The Love of God The Royal Crown