Gabirol at the Beach

In Málaga, in a little park across from and down the hill from the Alcázar, stands—or stood, at least in the year 2000—a statue of a famous Spanish Jew from the eleventh century that seems the last remaining sign or outpost of a Jewish presence in this coastal city that for many tourists is the portal to southern Spain.

image002The statue commemorates, according to the inscription on the pedestal, Solomon ibn Gabirol, “poet and philosopher.” Jews worldwide who attend synagogue services, even occasionally, probably are familiar with the liturgical poem “Adon Olam,” generally attributed to Ibn Gabirol. Sephardic Jews may be familiar with his long poem “Keter Malkhut.” A handful of literary scholars and some poetry aficionados may be familiar with the larger corpus of his poetry. Philosophers and theologians in and out of the Jewish world may be familiar with his philosophical work Fons Vitae. All in all, however, Solomon Ibn Gabirol is not a household name, and his work is not so easy to find.

He was born in Málaga in 1021 or 1022, moved to Saragossa (today, Zaragoza) and then probably Granada, and apparently died in Valencia in either 1051 or 1069, although there is no consensus in the sources.

(Left) Festival (Féria, in August) in Malaga: Parade commemorating
victory of Christians over Muslims. (Center) Relief map of Zaragoza.
(Right) Its castle.

Like the man and his work, the statue was not easy to find by an inquisitive tourist, but once found, seemed in an obvious place—in what was probably the Jewish quarter in medieval Málaga; in a park, where statues of fallen heroes often are found; and near the beach, the transition between land and sea, a metaphorical transition, between the physical world of the poet and the spiritual world of the philosopher, worlds that Ibn Gabirol inhabited and wrote about. Yes—Ibn Gabirol, when he lived here, surely must have walked this beach on the same Mediterranean Sea that washed and continues to wash the land of Israel. On the other hand, maybe he didn’t even know about the beach, or perhaps there was no beach then.

Why is the work of this great poet “not easy to find”? Until the nineteenth century readers and scholars knew he was a poet but didn’t know the poet was the same as a man known by the Latin name Avicebrol or Avicebron, author of Fons Vitae (“Fountain of Life”), a well-known philosophical work written in Latin and offering no hint of its author’s Jewishness or knowledge of Judaism.

Like many of the other of the “big five” medieval Spanish-Jewish poets, Ibn Gabirol wrote poems that express, either separately or together, an unusual and complex mixture of humility, lyricism, religiosity, metaphysics, self-confidence, anger and cynicism, ego, and bitterness.

There is the extreme, almost swaggering self-confidence to be expected of a talented young poet, who is “only/sixteen years old but” whose “heart holds wisdom like/some poet 80 year old man” (“The 16-Year-Old Poet”) (all references are to poems found on the Ibn Gabirol page on this web site).

Later it evolves into an attitude that many writers possess but hold in check for fear of appearing childish. Not Ibn Gabirol, who asks:

Where are the men with the strength to be men?
Where are those who have eyes and can see?
And every one of these poor beggars
Thinks of himself as another Aristotle.
You tell me they have written poems—
You call that poetry?
I call it the cawing of crows . . . (“His Answer to the Critics”).

Along with such a blast of mockery comes, in “Earth’s Embroidery,” such deep regard for the beauty of nature that “no artist could ever conceive the like of that.”

Ibn Gabirol is, as well, deeply attuned to the times of day and the sensibilities accompanying them. Like the Indian musician playing morning ragas in the morning and evening ragas in the evening, and of course like the religious Jew praying during these times in response to the requirements of the liturgy, Ibn Gabirol responds to these transitional times in his poetry as when he says, “Morning and evening I seek you” (“In Praise of God”).

He is especially fond of dawn, saying, for example, “I look for you early” (“I Look for You”), “Open the gate my beloved—/arise, and open the gate” (“Open the Gate”), “Come up to me at early dawn” (“Invitation”), and “Arise, O my rapture, at dawn I exclaim” (“Arise, O My Rapture”).

But of course there is no day without night, and so he writes (“Night-Thoughts”): “Will night already spread her wings and weave/her dusky robe about the day’s bright form. . . ?”

Could this interplay of light and dark have manifested in the dappling on the statue in the park? Could it symbolize the hide-and-seek that readers have experienced with his work?

Ibn Gabirol wrote secular poetry and religious poetry but probably is best known for his liturgical poetry. Can these poems be easily distinguished? Yes and no. Poems with God in them can be separated from those without, and editors and commentators have simplified the task by separating the poems into categories. However, when organizing the selections on this web site, I decided, with Ibn Gabirol, to mix things up to some extent, since, whatever the author’s original intentions for his work, some poets (and nonpoets too) tend to disdain categories for their work. And so sometimes an obviously religious poem can beautifully follow an obviously secular poem, and vice versa. Then again, perhaps none of these poems is “obviously” anything we think it is or can imagine.

In 2000 the park was being renovated, but oddly his image seems more renovated in Spain than in the rest of the Jewish world—oddly because Spain seems to be reclaiming its Jewish heritage while matters of poetry and poets are, except for pockets of exception in the world of Jewish scholarship, pretty much ignored in the Jewish world at large, just as they are in the general world at large.

Still, in 2001, the year after the statue was visited and photographed, the poet Peter Cole published a collection of English translations of Ibn Gabirol that was the first such collection published since 1923. And in recent years there also has been a spate of translations of Ibn Gabirol’s challenging philosophical-metaphysical long poem “Keter Malkhut,” familiar to Sephardic Jews in whose High Holiday liturgy it may be included. This poem, which Cole has translated, appears in the 1923 bilingual edition of Ibn Gabirol’s poetry and in recent translations by Rafael Loewe, David Slavitt, and Bernard Lewis.

It is odd that such a poem swings both ways, secular (philosophical-metaphysical) and religious, an example of the fluid poetic boundaries of the day or of our day, or maybe instead an example of migration from one sphere to another. Could this migration parallel that of Ibn Gabirol the poet from the small, hermetic Jewish world of religion and letters into the bustling modern Andalucian-Catholic world epitomized by a small park under renovation in a modern city that is a gateway to all things Spanish? Olé!

The statue of Ibn Gabirol photographed poorly by one visitor and ended up dappled with shadows and framed by orange under-construction gates warning, if not in words, to keep out. Could these words also apply to “Keter Malkhut,” translated twice as “The Royal Crown” and once as “The Kingly Crown,” “The Crown of the King,” and “Kingdom’s Crown,” for if expert translators cannot agree on a title for this lengthy, complex poem, how is the inexpert reader to pass beyond the gate of the title into the park of the poem itself?

And what about the Fons Vitae? How could a Jewish poet write such a seemingly un-Jewish philosophical treatise? Well, nothing wrong with being both a poet and a philosopher, is there? Think of Martin Buber, who collected and wrote Hasidic stories of rabbis in flying coaches and who also wrote sometimes impenetrable philosophic essays that explore universals that seem to transcend the boundaries of Judaism. The Crown of the King. The Fountain of Life. The expansive reader can, I suspect, move back and forth between the universal and particular in almost any line of Ibn Gabirol’s poems or in Buber’s works; the unsuspecting reader is, unintentionally, as expansive. Ross Brann explores other puzzles and shades of ambiguity in the work and lives of the medieval Hebrew poets in his subtle and sophisticated book The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain.

In “Keter Malkhut,” a melding of poetry and neoplatonic philosophy, Ibn Gabirol straddles the worlds, as he did in his life. In this poem he is not a poetic philosopher or a philosophical poet; rather, he meshes the two roles. Contemporary philosophers believe today that to fully understand his philosophy, his poetry must also be studied for its presentation of philosophy. And yet surely this distracts from appreciating the poetry on its own terms, for let us not forget, in the face of readings of Ibn Gabirol’s poetry that seek out the philosophy, Robert Penn Warren’s famous question, “How does a poem mean?” Can a poem shorn of its metaphors, its rhythm, sound, its music, and most importantly its emotion, really mean much of anything?

The poetic imagery shifts between light and dark, dusk and dawn–standard dichotomies, it could be argued, bulwarks of Jewish liturgy, imagery found as well in the language of mysticism, some of it expressed in poetry and some in prose, in, for example, the Zohar, the writings of St. John of the Cross, of Rumi, Meister Eckhart—the list could be very long. Sure, the reader can view the basic concepts as conventional, but the way the concepts are expressed is unique to each writer, including Ibn Gabirol, and derive from personal experience.

He is at the beach, on the edge of the sea, the junction of light and dark, dry land and infinitely wet ocean, transitional zone between the safe familiarity of the city with the unknown depths of the sea. Then again, all of this may have had absolutely no effect on the poet-philosopher, since people’s attitudes toward, and uses of, beaches have changed radically over the years, and it’s unwise to project modern-day sensibilities into the past. Nevertheless, the modern reader with a poetic sensibility would like to picture Ibn Gabirol at the beach and see in this picture some influence on his life and work.

As a twentieth-century poet once said, “Poets are the antennae of their race.” Perhaps Ibn Gabirol’s statue is a kind of antenna, reaching to the heavens, beseeching God, while at the same time conducting the energy of the imagination from above to below, the ground of Málaga, Spain, part of it beach, almost a thousand years after his birth.

—Henry Rasof

go to Solomon ibn Gabirol page