The New York Times
The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492by Peter Cole
Hebrew culture experienced a renewal in medieval Spain that produced what is arguably the most powerful body of Jewish poetry written since the Bible. Fusing elements of East and West, Arabic and Hebrew, and the particular and the universal, this verse embodies an extraordinary sensuality and intense faith that transcend the limits of language, place, and time./p>
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Hebrew culture experienced a renewal in medieval Spain that produced what is arguably the most powerful body of Jewish poetry written since the Bible. Fusing elements of East and West, Arabic and Hebrew, and the particular and the universal, this verse embodies an extraordinary sensuality and intense faith that transcend the limits of language, place, and time.
Peter Cole's translations reveal this remarkable poetic world to English readers in all of its richness, humor, grace, gravity, and wisdom. The Dream of the Poem traces the arc of the entire period, presenting some four hundred poems by fifty-four poets, and including a panoramic historical introduction, short biographies of each poet, and extensive notes. (The original Hebrew texts are available on the Princeton University Press Web site.) By far the most potent and comprehensive gathering of medieval Hebrew poems ever assembled in English, Cole's anthology builds on what poet and translator Richard Howard has described as "the finest labor of poetic translation that I have seen in many years" and "an entire revelation: a body of lyric and didactic verse so intense, so intelligent, and so vivid that it appears to identify a whole dimension of historical consciousness previously unavailable to us." The Dream of the Poem is, Howard says, "a crowning achievement."
The New York Times
Susan L. Einbinder
Nicholas De Lange
Meticulously edited and captivating anthology.... [P]oetic scholarship at its best.... [A] major translation project.
Winner of the 2010 TLS Risa Domb/Porjes Translation Prize, Jewish Book Council
Winner of the 2007 R. R. Hawkins Award, Association of American Publishers
Winner of the 2007 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Humanities, Association of American Publishers
Winner of the 2007 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Literature, Language, and Linguistics, Association of American Publishers
Winner of the 2007 National Jewish Book Award in Poetry
Finalist for the 2007 National Jewish Book Award in Sephardic Culture
Peter Cole, Winner of a 2010 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
"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.... His versions are masterly."--Eric Ormsby, New York Times Book Review
"Perpetually astonishing. The central figures in Peter Cole's anthology are great by any standards.... [They] provoke love in any reader of Hebrew literature, and by [a] miracle of Cole's own creation, in any reader of little or no Hebrew who directly confronts the work of this major poet-translator.... Superb."--Harold Bloom, New York Review of Books
"The book is a treasure trove, a labour of love and exceptional erudition, which will open up to the reader a world of poetry and culture as rich as anything in human civilization."--Times Literary Supplement
"...[Cole] has performed an enormous service and produced a book which is by turns moving, charming, and funny. No one after this will be able to write a book on medieval poetry without taking the Hebrew and Arabic poets of Spain into account."--Gabriel Josipovici, Times Literary Supplement
"Meticulously edited and captivating anthology.... [P]oetic scholarship at its best.... [A] major translation project."--Marjorie Perloff, Bookforum
Praise for Peter Cole's Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Selected Poems of Shmuel HaNagid (both Princeton):"Cole's translations . . . shimmer: they convey the power and mystique of the original."--Choice
Praise for Peter Cole's Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Selected Poems of Shmuel HaNagid (both Princeton): "Fresh, worldly, intimate, and wise."--Booklist
Praise for Peter Cole's Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Selected Poems of Shmuel HaNagid (both Princeton): "Cole's vigorous inventive translation is equal to the task of rendering [the] work [of a poet] whose range encompassed commerce and God, war and wine. HaNagid emerges as a man of identifiably modern--even enlightened--breadth, even as the rest of Europe languished in its Dark Ages."--Publishers Weekly
"Traversing five centuries, four hundred poems, and fifty poets, the anthology represents a remarkable literature that evolved and flourished between the East and the West, between sacred and the profane, and amid the collision and collusion of traditions, religions, and languages . . . all bolstered by Cole's extensive introductions, biographies, commentary, and glossaries."--American Poet
"Peter Cole offers us an unprecedented gift, bringing to life a body of Hebrew poetry that, wrote Harold Bloom, can at its best 'rival the magnificences of Scripture'....[Cole's] achievement in bringing us this volume is as death-defying an act as any ever undertaken by the poets he presents within its pages."--Esther Allen, Bomb Magazine
"The Dream of the Poem offers English readers a substantial, unfailingly elegant anthology of medieval Hebrew poetry in translation. Overall, it is a remarkable achievement. . . . [I]t brings to life a world we have long yearned to share more eloquently with those who could not read it for themselves."--Susan L. Einbinder, Speculum
"The anthology appears in a series devoted to translated poetry, and is designed to be accessible to general readers. Yet it is also suitable for use as a course book: there are helpful introductions and annotations, and the publisher has made the Hebrew originals available on-line. The book is a true labour of love, and should win new readers to this wonderfully rich body of poetry."--Nicholas De Lange, Journal of Jewish Studies
"Seldom if ever has medieval Iberian literature received such attention from the English-speaking academic world, much less the larger American reading public, and it speaks to the importance of Cole's translations, which have given voice to this material in a way that other translations have not. For scholars of Spanish literature these translations are important in that they make accessible to non-Hebrew speakers a large body of Judeo-Iberian poetry, some of it not previously available in translation."--Michelle Hamilton, Bulletin of Spanish Studies
"The book constitutes a milestone that will not be easy to surpass. May this book inspire the next generation of researchers to develop further research aims in Medieval Hebrew literature!"--Arie Schippers, Review of Middle Eastern Studies
Read an Excerpt
The Dream of the PoemHebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2007 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Introduction'THE SPANISH MIRACLE-" three words were all it took S. D. Goitein, the great historian of medieval Mediterranean society, to sum up the phenomenon that was the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Iberia. The emergence in the tenth century of this vibrant Hebrew literature seemed miraculous to Goitein, as it has to so many others who have come to know it well, because the poetry appeared virtually full-blown, at the far western edge of the medieval Jewish world, after more than a millennium of almost exclusively liturgical and ingrown poetic activity in the language. Suddenly, for the first time since the apocryphal Book of Ben Sira, Hebrew poets were writing with tremendous power about a wide range of subjects, including wine, war, friendship, erotic longing, wisdom, fate, grief, and both metaphysical and religious mystery. They did so in a variety of sophisticated modes, taken over for the most part from the by-then well-established tradition of Arabic verse, onto which they grafted a biblical vocabulary and a potent Hebraic mythopoetic vision. The best of that radically new secular and religious verse produced in Muslim Andalusia and Christian Spain ranks with the finest poetry of the European Middle Ages-or, for that matter, of anymedieval era. Embodying an extraordinary sensuality and an intense faith that reflected contemporary understanding of the created world and its order, this curiously alloyed poetry confronts the twenty-first-century reader with a worldview and aesthetic that in many respects defy modern oppositional notions of self and other, East and West, Arab and Christian and Jew, as it flies in the face of our received sense of what Hebrew has done and can do, and even what Jewishness means. At the same time, its densely woven brocade, deriving as it does from the charged culture of Spanish convivencia, or coexistence, can speak with startling directness to us today, when identities are increasingly compounded and borders easily crossed. For in opening their lives to the entire expanse of Greco-Arabic and Hebrew learning, the dictionally pure Jewish poets of Cordoba, Granada, and Saragossa carried out an act of profound, if paradoxical, cultural redemption. As they translated both the essence of their knowledge and the effects of Arabic poetry into an innovative Hebrew verse-and in the process risked loss of linguistic and religious self to immersion in the foreign-the Hebrew poets of Spain found, or founded, one of the most powerful languages of Jewish expression postbiblical literature has known.
A Paradise Grove
The trail of that hybrid verse leads back to the middle of the tenth century, when a young Moroccan poet with the Berber name of Dunash Ben Labrat arrived in Cordoba. Dunash had made his way to Iberia from Baghdad, where he was studying with the greatest Jewish figure of his day, Sa'adia Ben Yosef al-Fayuumi. From Sa'adia, who was the gaon, or head, of the Babylonian Jewish academy of Sura from 928 to 942, Dunash had absorbed a keen appreciation of Arabic and its notion of fasaaha (elegance, clarity, or purity), as well as its importance for the understanding of Hebrew-and especially Hebrew Scripture. Armed with that passion and the learning it led to, Dunash was importing to Spain a trunkful of new poetic strategies that would-whether he meant them to or not- soon change the face of Hebrew literature. While the process of that change remains obscure, the city of Cordoba clearly lay at its heart.
In wandering westward Dunash was trading one metropolis for another. Over the course of nearly two centuries Abbasid Baghdad had come to be considered the most spectacular city in the world. There, in a cultural vortex of extraordinary force, men of letters took in through translation the vast intellectual treasures of Greek and Persian antiquity, along with those of India (and perhaps China). Arabic literature flourished, as major poets refined their verse with a complex array of formal and thematic modes. By the mid-tenth century, Cordoba under the blue-eyed Umayyad caliph of Spanish-Basque descent, 'Abd al-Rahmaan III (r. 912-61), was in many ways a Western version of the Round City of Peace on the Tigris, and a rival in splendor to Constantinople. It too was a city of great sophistication and diversity: Jews, Muslims, and Christians contributed to its prosperity, and ethnic division between and within these communities was-for a time-held at bay. Centralized administration constructed on Abbasid, Byzantine, and Persian models was improved- with, for instance, a well-maintained and policed network of roads and regular postal service (using carrier pigeons) linking the seat of the government and the provinces. The economy thrived, as the so-called Green Revolution of Muslim Spain increased cultivation of the land. Advanced irrigation techniques brought from the east led Arab chroniclers of the day to describe the elaborate systems of canals and the thousands of water wheels that dotted the landscape. A near-alphabet of crops were imported, including apricots, artichokes, bananas, carrots, eggplants, figs, hard wheat, lemons, oranges, parsnips, peaches, pomegranates, rice, saffron, spinach, sugarcane, and watermelon-our words for which derive, in many cases, from the Arabic: naranj, ruzz, za'afraan, sukkar, sabaanakh.
Commerce boomed, and al-Andalus became known for the goods it produced. Paper, wool, silk, cotton (qutn), linen fabrics, and much more were exported-Goitein called medieval Mediterranean trade in textiles the equivalent of the twentieth-century steel industry or stock market - along with agricultural products and slaves. Imports included aromatic wood and spices from India and China; slaves from France and northern Europe; horses from North Africa and the Arabian peninsula; marble from Greece, Syria, Italy, and the Maghreb; singing girls and volumes of songs from Iraq; books and manuscripts from Cairo and Alexandria; and carpets from Persia. Power was maintained by an enormous army and fleet (the latter, it's said, the largest in the world at its time)-manned by a mix of Arabs, Berbers, Christians, and foreign mercenaries or purchased Slavs-and the kingdom was gradually enlarged. Arms factories near Cordoba reportedly produced some one thousand bows and twenty thousand arrows a month, and fortresses sprang up across the landscape as revenues from the new conquests filled the treasury. Above all, Andalusian culture flourished, having come a long way from the pioneer coarseness of the soldiers who had settled the peninsula in the early eighth century, when Taariq Ibn Ziyaad crossed the straits and landed at the rock he called Jabal al-Taariq (Taariq's mountain), the collapsed Romanized form of which yields our Gibraltar. Two hundred years of Muslim rule, beginning with the stabilizing reign of 'Abd al-Rahmaan I (r. 756-88), had seen Spain develop from a provincial outpost at the ends of the empire to a major Mediterranean power. The learned and pious 'Abd al-Rahmaan II (r. 822-52) established a brilliant formal court on the eastern caliphal model, expanded the city's great mosque, and built many smaller mosques, palaces, baths, roads, bridges, and gardens. He also began developing Cordoba's library, which in time would become the largest by far in medieval Europe. (Under 'Abd al-Rahmaan III's son and successor, al-Hakam II [r. 961-76], it held some 400,000 volumes.) Book buyers were sent to all ends of the Islamic empire, and back in Cordoba a team of calligraphers was maintained for "the rapid multiplication of new acquisitions." Smaller private and public libraries were common, and the bibliomaniacal capital hosted a huge book market, which employed some seventy copyists for the Quran alone-including many women. Women also worked as librarians, teachers, doctors, and lawyers. The new urban wonder acted as a magnet for poets and musicians in particular, the most prominent of whom was the Persian musician Ziryaab, who-legend has it-had fallen out of favor at the ninth-century Abbasid court and decided to try his luck in the West. With him Ziryaab brought the refinements of cosmopolitan Baghdad, including new hairstyles (showing the neck), seasonal wardrobes, the use of toothpaste and deodorants, orchestrated multi-course meals (at which asparagus was served), and, more to the point, his prodigious knowledge of music, poetry, art, and science. Arabic itself spread slowly but with remarkable effect, and by the mid-tenth century Jews, Christians, North-African Berber Muslims, and Christian converts were competing with the Arabs themselves for mastery of that most beautiful of languages, which became both the lingua franca of al-Andalus and the currency of high culture. Under the leadership of 'Abd al-Rahmaan III, who saw his kingdom's diversity as its strength and managed to unite the disparate communities of al-Andalus, Cordoba's population swelled, with immigrants streaming to the clean, well-lit streets of the city that one Christian poet described as "the ornament of the world."
While the Umayyad capital resembled Baghdad in almost every respect, Jewish society in al-Andalus had begun to take on a different cast from that of the socially conservative world of Babylonian Jewry. Oppressed for well over a century by the Visigothic rulers of Hispania, Jews had welcomed the Muslim invaders as saviors and no doubt proved valuable allies to the conquering foreigners, who knew neither the lay nor the language of the land. Arabic sources confirm this cooperation and note that Jews were often settled in conquered towns and entrusted with their garrisons, as the Muslim army advanced. While there were still hardships to bear, life in eighth-century Muslim Spain offered Jews opportunities they could not have dreamed of under the Visigoths. As people of the book (ahl alkitaab), Jews-like Christians-were accorded dhimmi, or protected, status. Enforcement of the regulations governing dhimmis, which varied throughout the Muslim world, were for the first several centuries relaxed in Spain, and the rate of Jewish conversion seems to have been quite low. Little by little Jews adopted Arab ways of dressing and speaking-as well as of shopping, eating, reading, singing, composing music, and writing- and they were allowed to practice an array of occupations. They farmed and owned land, managed vineyards, olive groves, and workshops, and eventually worked in medicine, textile production, trade, and even in government service. Synagogues were built and communities prospered, and Spanish Jewry enjoyed a kind of limited autonomy within the Muslim emirate. It wasn't long before North African Jews who had fled the Visigoths began returning to their homes. By the time Dunash arrived in Cordoba, Jewish intellectual life in the city was also stirring. The driving force behind that awakening was a gifted Jewish physician, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (c. 910-75), who is the first Spanish Jew to be mentioned by name in the Arab records of the day. Born to a wealthy family that had moved to Cordoba from Jaén, on the eastern coast of Spain, Hasdai demonstrated a talent for languages, early on learning Arabic, Latin, and Romance (proto-Spanish), as well as Hebrew and Aramaic. His passion, however, was medicine, and while still a young man he acquired a measure of fame as a Cordovan physician. When, around 940, he announced that he had succeeded in compounding theriaca, a Roman miracle drug whose formula had been lost for centuries, he was summoned to an audience with the caliph and added to the ranks of his court physicians. Hasdai continued to impress 'Abd al-Rahmaan III with both his knowledge and his way with people, and soon he was appointed to the shipping division of the customs bureau, where he supervised the collection of duties from ships entering and leaving Andalusia's busy ports. From time to time the caliph also consulted Hasdai about diplomatic affairs, taking advantage of his linguistic range and his tact, and the Jewish physician helped receive delegations from the German emperor Otto I and Ordoño III, king of León, with whom he negotiated a peace treaty and whose heir (Sancho) he successfully treated for obesity. 'Abd al-Rahmaan III also appointed Hasdai to the position of nasi, or head of Andalusian Jewry, over which he had supreme authority. As nasi Hasdai engaged in foreign Jewish affairs, writing to Helena, the wife of the Byzantine emperor, asking her to protect the Byzantine Jewish community from persecution. He maintained ties with the communities of Palestine and Babylonia and sought out contact with the Khazars-the independent kingdom of Jewish converts on the plains between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains-at one stage exchanging letters with the Khazar king. As his position in the caliph's court solidified, he began to sponsor a court of his own, which he developed along the Muslim model. He supported Jewish intellectuals in a number of fields, from religious studies to science and literature. He commissioned the copying and import of books, encouraged the immigration of scholars to al-Andalus, and, over a period of some fifty years, catalyzed Spain's development as a center of Jewish culture-no longer reliant on the eastern academies. Like the Arab Andalusian courts of the time, Hasdai's had its poet. Menahem Ben Saruq was born-probably around the turn of the millennium-to a Tortosan family of modest means and came as a young man to Cordoba, which had much more to offer an aspiring intellectual than did the remote northeastern town of his birth. He was supported in the capital by Hasdai's father, Yitzhaq, while he pursued philological studies and served as the aristocratic family's house poet, composing verse to mark special occasions. In time he returned to his home in the north, where he set himself up in business, but after Hasdai's appointment to 'Abd al-Rahmaan's service, the nasi wrote to Menahem and asked him to return to Cordoba and take up a position as his Hebrew secretary. It was, in fact, Menahem who wrote to Byzantium in 948, and to the Khazar king several years later, on which occasion he described al-Andalus:
The country in which we dwell is called in the sacred tongue Sefarad, but in the language of the Arabs ... al-Andalus. The land is fat, and rivers and springs and quarried cisterns abound. Wheat and corn cover the fields, the yield of which is great. And pleasant groves and gardens of various sorts are found. All kinds of fruit trees flourish, and trees on whose leaves the silk worms feed, and silkworms we have aplenty. On our hills and in our forests the crimson worm is gathered. Saffron covers our slopes and mountains. Veins of silver and gold can be found ... and from our mountains copper is mined, and iron and tin and lead, along with sulfur, marble, porphyry and crystal ... for which merchants come from all corners of the land. And from every region and the distant islands of the sea, traders stream to it, from Egypt and the adjacent countries, bringing perfumes and spices, and precious gems.
The letter was prefaced by an impressive quasi-martial panegyric with messianic overtones. We also know that Menahem composed poems in praise of Hasdai and others, and on the death of both of Hasdai's parents-though these did little to win the affection of his patron, who seems at best to have tolerated his poet and scribe, and failed to provide him with the sort of remuneration he had promised.
Excerpted from The Dream of the Poem Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Peter Cole is a poet and translator of Hebrew and Arabic poetry. He has received numerous awards for his work, including prizes from the "Times Literary Supplement" and the Modern Language Association, and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Winner of the 2004 PEN-America Translation Award, he lives in Jerusalem, where he coedits Ibis Editions. He was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2007.
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