One of the greatest of the medieval poets of Spain was Solomon b. Judah Ibn Gabirol of Cordova (c1021-1058). Little is known of his life after he left Saragossa at the age of sixteen, except that he seemed to have suffered from melancholia and loneliness and to have died young. Ibn Gabirol was a philosopher and a poet, "a poet whose poems are consecrated by the intellect, a thinker whose thoughts are transfigured by poetry." [1]

His chief philosophical work, written in Arabic, was called Meqor Hayyim dealt with the nature of the divine essence and will; his ethical work Tikkun Middor ha-Nefesh, the first work of its kind by a Jewish philosopher, in asmuch as it presented an ethical system independent of any specific religious tradition.

Ibn Gabirol was filled with enthusiasm for the Hebrew language; from earliest childhood he made it his goal to restore its original charm and freshness; and he strove to make it possible for the song of the pious singers of old to be heard in it again. Faithful to his goal, he was active in all the fields of religious lyric and did more than anyone else for the dissemination of Hebrew poetry. We have from his hand hymns and meditations, selihot (penitential prayers) and prayers, qinot (dirges) and hopeful, longing visions of the future in the most varied forms and styles.[2]

Ibn Gabirol's secular poetry deals with the standard themes of wine, friends, loneliness and sorrow; it expresses both a joie de vivre and despair at the vanity of life and worldly striving.

In the following brief, but exquisite poem about the magnificent colors found in nature, the poet paints a canvas of flowers and stars; the rains of autumn serve as a metaphor for the creative act of writing. It is said that every imaginable color has its origin in the natural world.

With the ink of its showers and rains, with the quill
of its illuminating lightning, and the hand of its clouds,
autumn wrote a letter upon the garden, in purple and blue.
No artist could conceive of such things.
And this is why the earth, grown jealous of the sky,
embroidered stars in the folds of the flowerbeds.


[1] Michael Jehiel Sachs, Der Religiuse Poesie der Juden in Spanien.
Berlin: Veit und Co., 1845, p. 223. [back]

[2] Ibn Gabirol's sacred poems were collected in the (second) edition by H.N. Bialik and I.H.Ravnitzky (Tel Aviv, Dvir, 1927/8, 1931/32). See Selected Religious Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, ed. I. Davidson, trans. I. Zangwill I(Philadelphia: JPS, 1928). [back]

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