Moses Ibn Ezra

(ca. 1055 – after 1135)

Moses Ibn Ezra’s poem “Kevarim min zeman kedem”—“I Behold Ancient Graves” (a Spanish translation follows the English)—engraved on a wall in the courtyard of the Jewish museum in Toledo, Spain.

Moses Ibn Ezra’s poem “Kevarim min zeman kedem”—“I Behold Ancient Graves” (a Spanish translation follows the English)—engraved on a wall in the courtyard of the Jewish museum in Toledo, Spain.

SONG

 

Circumstance has estranged my friend.

He has bolted the door

but I will enter the portal

and knock

despite my enemies.

I will shatter locks with words.

I will break bolts with my songs

and will persuade myself

that nettles are sprigs of balsam.

I will dance and shout to their bitter juice

as if I were drunk on wine

and humble myself

and pretend that hell stream is icy

if it will get me through the darkness

into his light.

 

Go now, my song,

take this message to my beloved,

for song is a faithful messenger.

 

Carl Rakosi

After Moses ibn Ezra

 

From “Eight Songs and Meditations (1971-1975),”

in The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi

(Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation/University of Maine, 1986).

Copyright © 1986 by Callman Rawley. Reprinted with permission

of Marilyn Kane, for the estate of Carl Rakosi, AKA Callman Rawley.

 

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THE ROSE*

 

The garden put on a coat of many colours, and its grass garments were like robes of brocade. All the trees dressed in chequered tunics and showed their wonders to every eye. The new blossoms all came forth in honour of Time renewed, came gaily to welcome him. But at their head advanced the rose, king of them all, for his throne was set on high. He came out from among the guard of leaves and cast aside his prison-clothes. Whoever does not drink his wine upon the rose-bed—that man will surely bear his guilt!

 

*Or ‘The Lily’.

 

Translated by T. Carmi

from The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, edited by T. Carmi

(Allen Lane, 1981). Copyright © T. Carmi, 1981.

 

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O BROOK

 

O brook, whose hurrying waters go

To the far land that holds my friend,

By thee, my greeting let me send;

And if thy waves seem red as blood,

Tell him my tears have stained thy flood;

The mingled drops of eye and heart,

For exile, and for love, they flow—

Exile and love, that rend the frame

Of them who dwell from friends apart.

 

O brook, bespeak him tenderly;

Fill thou his heart with thought of me,

So that usurper may not claim

My place therein.

Make him to know

That for his ransom I would give

What years I yet may have to live—

Or if my life be all too little worth,

That which I hold most precious upon earth.

 

Translated by Solomon Solis-Cohen

from Heinrich Brody, ed., and Solomon Solis-Cohen, trans.,

Selected Poems of Moses ibn Ezra

(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1945).

Copyright © 1934, 1945 by The Jewish Publication Society of America.

 

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FROM THE “DIVAN”

 

My thoughts impelled me to the resting-place

Where sleep my parents, many a friend and brother.

I asked them (no one heard and none replied):

“Do ye forsake me, too, oh father, mother?”

Then from the grave, without a tongue, these cried,

And showed my own place waiting by their side.

 

Translated by Emma Lazarus

from Emma Lazarus, The Poems of Emma Lazarus, vol. 2

(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888).

Copyright © Emma Lazarus, 1888.

 

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THE JOURNEY

 

Let man remember all the days of his life that he is being led to death. Stealthily he journeys on, day after day; he thinks he is at rest, like a man who is motionless on board ship, while the ship is flying on the wings of the wind.

 

Translated by T. Carmi

from The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, edited by T. Carmi

(Allen Lane, 1981). Copyright © T. Carmi, 1981.

 

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I BEHOLD ANCIENT GRAVES

 

I behold graves of ancient time, of days long past,

Wherein a people sleeps the eternal sleep.

There is no enmity among these folk—no envy;

No loving of neighbor and no hating;

And my thought, envisioning them, cannot discern

Master from slave!

 

Translated by Solomon Solis-Cohen

from Heinrich Brody, ed., and Solomon Solis-Cohen, trans.,

Selected Poems of Moses ibn Ezra

(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1945).

Copyright © 1934, 1945 by The Jewish Publication Society of America.

 

image004

Spanish translation of the

previous poem (the Hebrew is

on page 63 of the Solis-Cohen

book cited above) on a plaque

in the courtyard of the Jewish

museum in Toledo, Spain.

David Ramirez has translated

(with a couple of minor

editorial changes) the Spanish

into English in prose as follows:

 

“These are old tombs, from ancient times, where men sleep the eternal dream. Inside them, there is no hate or envy, nor love or enmity between neighbors. When one sees them, my mind is not capable of distinguishing slaves from lords.”

 

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A NIGHT OF GRIEF

 

Who will take revenge upon the lions* for my blood? Who will demand my sleep from the gazelles? Is there vengeance for a lover’s blood? Can he ever savour sleep? His pain will not allow it! It is as if his eyes were painted with burning embers and his pupils filled with painful briars. His eyelids cannot come together; it is as if they were tied to their brows. My night is plunged into a silent sea of darkness, where no waves rise—a sea that is to me far wider than the sea; for it has no coast, no shore for those who voyage. The moon, in his glory, moves like a shepherd, slowly grazing his lambs in broad pastures; or like a general, commissioned by the sun, to be the rearguard of his armies. And I do not know if this night is long or short how can a man who is oppressed with grief know such a thing?

 

*Lit. ‘the mouth of the lions’; the ‘lions’ and ‘gazelles’ are the cruel friends who deserted the poet.

 

Translated by T. Carmi

from The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, edited by T. Carmi

(Allen Lane, 1981). Copyright © T. Carmi, 1981.

 

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GRAVES

 

And where are the graves, so many graves

Of all who have died on the earth since the beginning?

Grave tunnelling into grave,

Headstone and obelisk crumbled into one dust,

Bodies heaped upon bodies, in motionless orgy—

All sleeping together in deep holes,

Fragments of chalk,

Stained rubies.

 

Translated by Robert Mezey

Copyright © Robert Mezey, 1973.

Used by permission of the author.

 

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MEDITATION

 

Men are children of this world

yet God has set eternity in my heart.

 

All my life I have been in the desert

but the world is a fresh stream.

 

I drink from it. How potent this water is!

How deeply I crave it!

 

An ocean rushes into my throat

but my thirst remains unquenched.

 

Carl Rakosi

After Moses ibn Ezra

 

From “Eight Songs and Meditations (1971-1975),”

in The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi

(Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation/University of Maine, 1986).

Copyright © 1986 by Callman Rawley. Reprinted with permission

of Marilyn Kane, for the estate of Carl Rakosi, AKA Callman Rawley.

 

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DRINKING SONG

 

Bring me that sickly looking wine glass.

See, when I fill it

it becomes as ardent as a lover’s face

and chases off my beelzebubs.

 

Drink, my friend, and pass the beaker

so I may unburden myself

and if you see me going under

revive me with your minstrelsy.

 

Carl Rakosi

After Moses ibn Ezra

 

From “Eight Songs and Meditations (1971-1975),”

in The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi

(Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation/University of Maine, 1986).

Copyright © 1986 by Callman Rawley. Reprinted with permission

of Marilyn Kane, for the estate of Carl Rakosi, AKA Callman Rawley.

 

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DAWN

 

I rose at dawn to praise Thy name,

My sins o’erwhelmed my soul with shame,

But comfort after penance came,

For all my hopes are set in Thee.

 

Thou, O Almighty, knowest all

The passions that my heart enthrall,

Thy many mercies I recall,

And to Thy throne for refuge flee.

 

No profit unto Thee it were

That I Thy chastening rod should bear,

Turn then, O Lord, and hear my prayer

And pardon mine iniquity.

 

To Thee my hopes, my longings, rise,

To Thee my soul for succour flies,

And I bewail my sins with sighs,

Like to the moaning of the sea.

 

Thy name puts all my cares to flight,

And radiates through my darkest night.

The thought of Thee is my delight,

And sweet as honey-comb to me.

 

Translated by Alice Lucas

from Alice Lucas, The Jewish Year

(New York: Bloch, 1926).

Copyright © Alice Lucas, 1926.

 

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WHY IS MY LOVED ONE WROTH

 

(Ahabah)

 

Why is my loved One wroth—

That He should be disdainful of me,

While my heart, in its yearning for Him,

Is shaken like a reed?

He hath forgotten the time

When, joyously, I followed Him into the wilderness;

Else, how should I cry this day,

And He answer not?

 

Yet verily, though He slay me

Still will I trust in Him;

And if He hide His face,

I will bethink me of His tenderness, and turn thereto.

The loving-kindness of the Lord will not fail His servant

For pure gold changes not, nor dims.

 

Translated by Solomon Solis-Cohen

from Heinrich Brody, ed., and Solomon Solis-Cohen, trans.,

Selected Poems of Moses ibn Ezra

(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1945).

Copyright © 1934, 1945 by The Jewish Publication Society of America.

 

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COME LET US SEEK THE SPOTS

 

(Ahabah)

 

Come, let us seek the spots where dwelled of old

The folk belovèd.

Fate bath scattered them,

And only ruins of their homes remain.

Where stood the shelter of the roes, behold

The lair of lions and the wolves’ terrain.

 

I hear afar, the cry of the gazelle

That wails in Edom’s keep, or Ismael’s chain;

She weeps for her beloved One, estranged,

The bridegroom of her youth.

Oh, may she sing

For joy, instead of grief! Oh, may her words

Find favor as aforetime:

“Me sustain

With Thy endearments, as with flagons. Bring

With sweets of love, my soul to life again!”

 

Translated by Solomon Solis-Cohen

from Heinrich Brody, ed., and Solomon Solis-Cohen, trans.,

Selected Poems of Moses ibn Ezra

(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1945).

Copyright © 1934, 1945 by The Jewish Publication Society of America.

 

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THOU THAT GRACIOUSLY ATTENDEST

 

O Thou, that graciously attendest

To the voice of suppliants,

And So the sweet words of psalmody,

Bethink Thee of the trustful one

Who knocks at the gates of prayer,

And in the darkness at the dead of night

Whilst the world sleeps,

Cries: “I stand upon my ward

All the night.”

 

Them that were drawn with the bands of man,

With the leading strings of love,

Thou hast forgotten in the prison of their woe,

Where they dwell, like the dead, among the shadows.

Where is their Redeemer and Deliverer,

Whose loving-kindness never ceases?

Where are the signs and the wonders,

And the mighty proofs?

 

Of old, Thou madest Israel like a vineyard—

Wherein Thou didst plant tender vines.

Alas! Thou hast broken down his fences,

All they that pass by, hiss at him.

Thou hast strengthened the hand of his enemies,

He is shaken out and emptied.

They have stript off his branches

And heaped them up in the road.

Oh, hear the cry of Thy people

And incline unto their plea—

In their misery,

Hide not Thine eyes from their grief!

Oh, hasten their deliverance—

For Thou art their Redeemer—

And cast all their sins

Like a stone, into the depths.

 

Translated by Solomon Solis-Cohen

from Heinrich Brody, ed., and Solomon Solis-Cohen, trans.,

Selected Poems of Moses ibn Ezra

(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1945).

Copyright © 1934, 1945 by The Jewish Publication Society of America.

 

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IN THE NIGHT

 

Unto the house of prayer my spirit yearns,

Unto the sources of her being turns,

To where the sacred light of heaven burns,

She struggles thitherward by day and night.

 

The splendor of God’s glory blinds her eyes,

Up without wings she soareth to the skies,

With silent aspiration seeks to rise,

In dusky evening and in darksome night.

 

To her the’ wonders of God’s works appear,

She longs with fervor Him to draw anear,

The tidings of His glory reach her ear,

From morn to even, and from night to night.

 

The banner of thy grace did o’er me rest,

Yet was thy worship banished from my breast.

Almighty, thou didst seek me out and test

To try and to instruct me in the night.

 

I dare not idly on my pillow lie,

With winged feet to the shrine I fain would fly,

When chained by leaden slumbers heavily,

Men rest in imaged shadows, dreams of night.

 

Infatuate I trifled youth away,

In nothingness dreamed through my manhood’s day.

Therefore my streaming tears I may not stay,

They are my meat and drink by day and night.

 

In flesh imprisoned is the son of light,

This life is but a bridge when seen aright.

Rise in the silent hour and pray with might,

Awake and call upon thy God by night!

 

Hasten to cleanse thyself of sin, arise!

Follow Truth’s path that leads unto the skies,

As swift as yesterday existence flies,

Brief even as a watch within the night.

 

Man enters life for trouble; all he has,

And all that he beholds, is pain, alas!

Like to a flower does he bloom and pass,

He fadeth like a vision of the night.

 

The surging floods of life around him roar,

Death feeds upon him, pity is no more,

To others all his riches he gives o’er,

And dieth in the middle hour of night.

 

Crushed by the burden of my sins I pray,

Oh, wherefore shunned I not the evil way?

Deep are my sighs, I weep the livelong day,

And wet my couch with tears night after night.

 

My spirit stirs, my streaming tears still run,

Like to the wild birds’ notes my sorrows’ tone,

In the hushed silence loud resounds my groan,

My soul arises moaning in the night.

 

Within her narrow cell oppressed with dread,

Bare of adornment and with grief-bowed head

Lamenting, many a tear her sad eyes shed,

She weeps with anguish in the gloomy night.

 

For tears my burden seem to lighten best,

Could I but weep my heart’s blood, I might rest.

My spirit bows with mighty grief oppressed,

I utter forth my prayer within the night.

 

Youth’s charm has like a fleeting shadow gone,

With eagle wings the hours of life have flown.

Alas! the time when pleasure I have known,

I may not now recall by day or night.

 

The haughty scorn pursues me of my foe,

Evil his thought, yet soft his speech and low.

Forget it not, but bear his purpose so

Forever in thy mind by day and night.

 

Observe a pious fast, be whole again,

Hasten to purge thy heart of every stain.

No more from prayer and penitence refrain,

But turn unto thy God by day and night.

 

He speaks: “My son, yea, I will send thee aid,

Bend thou thy steps to me, be not afraid.

No nearer friend than I am, hast thou made,

Possess thy soul in patience one more night.”

 

Translated by Emma Lazarus

from Emma Lazarus, The Poems of Emma Lazarus, vol. 2

(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888).

Copyright© Emma Lazarus, 1888.

 

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Further Reading

Essay

Moses Ibn Ezra: The Wandering Jew

Hebrew Sources

Bialik, Hayim Nahman, and Y.H. Ravnitzky, eds. Shirei Moshe ben Yakov Ibn Ezra. 2 vols. [vol 1 is secular; vol 2 is religious] Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1928. Available as .pdf documents 109 and 110 at http://www.teachittome.com/seforim2/seforim5.html . If you read Hebrew, you can download his opus onto your flash drive and have plenty of room for the rest of your poetry collection. 

Brody, H. ed. Moses Ibn Ezra: Secular Poems. Vol 1. Berlin, 1935. Vol 2, Jerusalem, 1942. Vol 3. Edited by Dan Pagis. Jerusalem, 1978.

Translations (all of these books also contain commentary and biography)

Brody, Heinrich, ed., and Solomon Solis-Cohen, trans. Selected Poems of Moses Ibn Ezra. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1934, 1945 (paper 1974).

Carmi, T. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Goldstein, David. The Jewish Poets of Spain, 900-1250. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. Wine, Women, and Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1986 (paperback: New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Scheindlin, Raymond P. The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel, and the Soul. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991 (paperback: New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Scholarship and Biography

Brann, Ross. “The Regenerate Poet: Moses ibn Ezra.” In Ross Brann, The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain. London and Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Brody, Heinrich. Introduction to Selected Poems of Moses Ibn Ezra, edited by Heinrich Brody and translated by Solomon Solis-Cohen. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1934, 1945 (paper 1974).

______. “Moses Ibn Ezra: Incidents in His Life.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. New Ser. 24:4 (April 1934), 309-320. Examines the poet’s life via his poetry and other sources. Available via JSTOR, available online through libraries.

Dana, Joseph. “Meaningful Rhyme in the Hebrew Poetry of Spain (Selected Examples from the Sacred Poetry of Rabbi Moses Ibn Ezra).” The Jewish Quarterly Review. New Ser. 76:3 (January 1986), 169-189. Available via JSTOR, available online through libraries.

Pagis, Dan. Shirat Hahol VeTorat Hashir LeMoshe Eben Ezra U’Vene Doro [The Secular Poetry and Poetic Theory of Moshe Ibn Ezra]. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1970.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. “Moses Ibn Ezra.” In The Literature of Al-Andalus. Edited by Maria Rosa Menocal, Raymond P. Scheindlin, and Michael Sells. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.  

Schramm, Gene M. “Moses Ibn Ezra’s ‘Graves’: The Analysis of a Short Poem.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research.” 30 (1962), 129-139. Perhaps of value to linguists. Available via JSTOR, available online through libraries.

Zinberg, Israel. A History of Jewish Literature. Vol 1, The Arabic-Spanish Period. Translated and edited by Bernard Martin. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University, 1972. See pp 65-81.

 Links to Other Web Sites with Information on Moses Ibn Ezra