Abraham ibn Ezra and the Metaphors of Imagination

by Henry Rasof

Abraham ibn Ezra was born in Tudela, Spain, around 1092 or 1093 (some sources give 1089); left Spain probably for good in 1146; and died around 1167 (1164 according to some sources), perhaps in London. After he left Spain, he lived in a number of cities, including Rome, Pisa, Narbonne, and London, writing many books and spreading his knowledge of Spanish-Jewish-Arabic culture. Tudela was also the birthplace of another famous poet, Yehudah Halevi, and another famous traveler, Benjamin of Tudela.

Ibn Ezra was a polymath who, according to Leon Weinberger, wrote “over one hundred books on medicine, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, poetry, Bible, Talmud, and linguistics” and “was the model itinerant sage.” He also “was one of the best known and admired Jewish figures in the West. His Pisan Tables in astronomy were the authoritative guides for Roger Bacon . . . , Nicolas of Cusa . . . , and Pico della Pirandola . . . , and he was remembered for his pioneering efforts in introducing the mathematics of the Arabs to the Europeans” (9). According to David Goldstein, “he endeavored to bring the culture of the Spanish Jews to those living in Italy, France and England, and it is primarily due to him that schools of poetry began to flourish in Italy and Provence. . .” (153).

In his poem “I Have a Garment,” Ibn Ezra creates what could be seen as an emblem of his life and work, as an emblem of the life of the poet in general, and more broadly as an emblem of the life of the imagination. As with much information about the medieval Hebrew poets and their work, Ibn Ezra’s authorship of this poem is not one hundred percent certain. Regardless of authorship, however, the poem still is emblematic of his life, since Ibn Ezra was poor in material wealth but rich in spiritual and creative wealth.

On one level, the poem acknowledges this duality and expresses, as Goldstein puts it, “his religious humility before the Creator” (153). On another level the poem expresses profound theories of the imagination and of interpretation that, like Ibn Ezra’s famous biblical commentary, foreshadow approaches taken many hundreds of years later.

The author says: The “garment . . . is like a sieve/Through which girls sift barley and wheat” (this and other quotes from the poem are from Weinberger). Like a threadbare garment the poet has little in the way of material wealth, and this garment in particular has holes large enough through which girls can be seen. On the other hand, the poet can see the stars through it, along with the moon and the constellations: by day, girls sifting grain; by night, the seven sisters of the Pleiades. Night is when the imagination blossoms a thousandfold, when the “thousand stars pierce” the blackness of the sky as well as the holes in the garment.

At night the simple, threadbare cloak becomes a tent and then the sky itself. The garment of the imagination transforms the physical garment into the sky itself. Lights—the stars—now pierce the garment of the sky, illuminating the humdrum activities on earth. This is what the poetic imagination (at least to many modern poets) does via the vehicle of metaphor: It elevates, then transforms, the ordinary. After the poet reaches the realm of the celestial bodies, he comes back down to earth. Now the holes in the garment are like “the teeth of many saws,” and the holes are beyond repair. And yet the thread that might be used “to sew up all the other threads” is “superfluous.” Not only is the cloak beyond repair, but the holes do not need to be repaired: They surround just the right amount of thread. The imagination has a foundation that sometimes appears shoddy and other times appears exactly as it should.

All fabric has holes, even good physical fabric, and threadbare fabric has still larger holes. The poetic imagination requires both fabric and holes—there needs to be something to transform, and transformation occurs only when the material world and its descriptions can be penetrated by the starlight of imagination. One is reminded of the line in William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.” The cloak is the covering over this sort of cosmic perception, and the holes allow viewers to peer through. And, like the door, which still remains even after it is cleansed, the cloak requires a certain amount of thread in order to remain a cloak. The light of the imagination requires a physical world to illuminate. Without anything to transform, the imagination is of no value.

As mentioned earlier, Abraham ibn Ezra was, in addition to being a poet, an important biblical commentator. Levels of hiddenness in the Hebrew Bible are also referred to as garments of Torah, and so the poet’s garment may be seen to refer, even if unintentionally, as well to the garments of the divine. To penetrate the different levels of meaning of the Torah requires a great deal of light, the light of reason and the light of the imagination. Orion the hunter seems an apt image for the biblical commentator, who uses his interpretative “club” to fend off the large illusions and wrong interpretations and his sword to cut through the finer illusions, illuminated by the bright stars in his shield. The poem can be taken as an adjunct to the biblical commentary and, on another metaphorical level, as a metaphor for the imaginative process at the heart of his commentary.

The poet sees the moon through the holes in his cloak. This too can be interpreted in many ways. For example, if biblical text is like the sun, then commentary is like the moon; the light of the latter cannot exist without the former. Likewise, if the moon is a symbol of the imagination, what does Ibn Ezra want us to think by describing the moon as seen through the tattered cloak? Is this reading a dangerous backward projection of the lunar literary cosmology of the French symbolists? Perhaps, but Ibn Ezra’s imagery, lunar or otherwise, does seem to play to modern sensibilities.

Ibn Ezra also wrote a book on astrology, and his astrological beliefs and their connection to creativity emerge in this poem as well. Could he also be implying that astrology can be used to unravel the secrets of the Torah? Orion can be taken as a metaphor for astrology and its “weapons” in its own search for truth. The Pleiades can be interpreted in many ways, depending on whether the focus is on the number of stars (seven), on the gender of the stars (feminine), or on some other symbolic system.

However Ibn Ezra means that the constellations help in the process of revealing the truth, ultimately only God can bring about the ultimate truth. We have to address God directly and ask for His help, and since God is ultimately responsible for the constituents and processes of the poet’s mind, for the faculty of the imagination, and for the universe itself, in the end we need to transform what we see through, and can learn from, the cloak into praise for God. And we especially need to thank God for the beautiful and magical properties of “these poor rags.”

Works Cited

Goldstein, David, trans. The Jewish Poets of Spain, 900-1250. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1965.

Weinberger, Leon, ed. and trans. Twilight of a Golden Age: Selected Poems of Abraham Ibn Ezra. Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1997.

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