One day in 10th-century Baghdad a visiting foreign student named Dunash Ben Labrat showed his teacher, the revered scholar Sa’adia Gaon, a poem he had composed in a novel style. Sa’adia handed the poem back with the comment “Nothing like it has ever been seen in Israel.” This dubious compliment, which all teachers of creative writing might wish to employ, failed to discourage Dunash. He took himself, and his new poetry, back home to Muslim Spain. There, despite the dismay his mediocre verses prompted in other aspiring Hebrew poets, his style caught on. Within a few decades, from these unpromising origins, a brilliant and original body of Hebrew verse began to take shape. Virtually stagnant since late Biblical times, Hebrew poetry and the language itself would be transformed by a succession of poets of genius and their imitators. In Peter Cole’s rich new anthology, the extent of their astonishing achievement is fully revealed for the first time in English.
Dunash’s innovation was strikingly simple. He adapted the meters of classical Arabic poetry to Hebrew. This was more radical than it might seem. Arabic is a quantitative language, like ancient Greek; long and short vowels are scrupulously marked, and this imparts a subtly variable music to the lines. Biblical poetry, by contrast, emphasized stress. It took ingenuity, as well as artistry, to force Hebrew into this unaccustomed pattern.
Only 13 of Dunash’s poems survive, along with one by his wife (whose name is lost), and it seems improbable that out of such feeble stuff — Sa’adia was right to be noncommital — a poetic renaissance might take flight. But the history of Hebrew poetry in Spain, as Cole makes clear in his witty and erudite notes, thrived on happy accidents. One of its greatest poets, Shmu’el Hanagid, the 11th-century general and sometime vizier to the Muslim ruler of Granada who was also a distinguished Talmudist in his spare time, composed more than 2,000 poems, the manuscript of which lay undiscovered until 1924, when it “was found by chance in a crate.” The work of Shelomo Ibn Gabirol, Shmu’el’s cranky contemporary (and poetic equal), was snatched from a fireplace in Iraq “where it was about to become fuel for the week’s laundry.” Many other poets’ works were discovered in the Cairo Geniza, that brimming storeroom in the Ben Ezra Synagogue where much of medieval Jewish history lay in tattered bundles until the late 19th century.
Hebrew poetry in Spain begins with Dunash around 950, but for almost two centuries, Arab poets there had been refining a body of literature unsurpassed for allusiveness and wit. So seductive were its melodies that Jewish poets living under Muslim rule were inspired not simply to imitate it in Hebrew but to rival and, at times, surpass it, taking not only meters from their Arab models but also themes, tropes and entire genres. When Yehuda Halevi wishes to evoke a male friend’s charms, he says, “My heart is pure, but not my eyes.” The sentiment may be “Platonic,” as Cole claims, but there is a delicate, and very Andalusian, uncertainty to the verse; it manages to be at once chaste and erotic. In another poem Yehuda enjoins his soul “to seek the Lord and His thresholds” and “offer your songs like incense.” Austere poems praising God alternate with sensuous evocations of a lovely girl’s — or boy’s — cheek or curls.