Moshe Ibn Ezra (c. 1055 — after 1138)
Balance, calm employment of ornament, clarity of presentation as well as emotion—these are the traits that characterize the poetry of the third major poet of the period, Moshe Ibn Ezra, who was often considered Andalusia’s finest Hebrew craftsman. While lacking the spirit of innovation we find in the poetry of HaNagid and Ibn Gabirol, Ibn Ezra brings to his work such a thorough integration of Arabic and Hebrew literary elements that he has come to be considered the representative poet of the Spanish-Hebrew Golden Age. Often overlooked in this concentration on Ibn Ezra’s technical and typical accomplishments, however, is the quietly personal aspect of his work; for the fusion of ethoi at the heart of his poetry acts in fact as ballast and keel against a deep and abiding melancholy. From his exquisite craft a distinctive, bittersweet tenderness emerges, one that is moving in its restraint, especially in his poems of exile. Ibn Ezra also excelled at short meditative lyrics and sensual verse, and he is highly regarded for his devotional poetry, where his blending of elements from the Jewish religious tradition and the secular Arabic literature of the age at times turns the latter inside out, transporting the reader, or worshipper, from a bedouin desert encampment to a synagogue and place of deepest devotion.
Born in Granada to a family of Jewish aristocrats who had served that kingdom’s Berber rulers, Ibn Ezra passed the first half of his adult life in comfortable surroundings in the city of his birth. The Granadan Jewish community rapidly recovered from the events of 1066, when the city’s Muslim population rose up against Yehosef HaNagid, who had assumed his father’s position as chief vizier to the Berber king but was, it seems, much less gifted and respected a leader. An Arabic chronicle of the day written by ‘Abd Allah b. Buluggiin, the grandson of King Badiis, recalls Yehosef as a manipulative and selfish figure who sowed unrest and brought on his own downfall. He was assassinated, and in the riots and slaughter that followed, a large proportion of the city’s Jews were killed (the precise numbers are hard to determine). The Ibn Ezra family may have taken refuge in Lucena, where Moshe studied under Ibn Ghiyyat. At some point after returning to Granada, Ibn Ezra was given the title saahib al-shuurta (chief of police), though the title was by then honorary alone. Like his relatives, however, he most likely held a position of distinction in the kingdom. He seems to have forged close ties with a number of poets, and early on recognized the gifts of the young, northern-born Yehuda HaLevi, whom—it appears—he invited to Granada. Ibn Ezra’s Andalusian idyll ended in 1090, with the invasion of the reformist Almoravids from North Africa. His family fortune was confiscated, and his three brothers fled. For reasons that are still not clear, the poet himself remained behind with his wife and children. A few years later, again under mysterious circumstances (which may have involved a scandal of some sort with one of his female cousins), he was forced to abandon Granada and his family. He spent the rest of his life wandering in the Christian north, bemoaning the loss of his Andalusian world and its glories. Castile, Navarre, and their outer provinces represented for him a major step down on the cultural ladder. He felt himself to be surrounded by boors, and suffered both materially and spiritually. Loneliness and complaint dominate these poems of the second half of Ibn Ezra’s life, which are in many ways his most distinctive. He died sometime after 1138.
In addition to his large body of secular and religious poems, Ibn Ezra is the author of two prose works, both written in Arabic late in his life. The meandering, Neoplatonic Maqaalat al-Hadiiqa fi Ma‘ana l-Majaaz wa-il-Haqiiqa (Essays in the Garden of the Figurative and Literal) deals with a variety of philosophical topics concerning the intersection of theology and figurative language. Kitaab al-Muhaadara wa-al-Mudhaakara (The Book of Discussion and Remembrance), which has been cited frequently in this anthology, is the only contemporary work that critically examines the Andalusian Hebrew poetry in belletristic (rather than, say, linguistic, or prosodic) fashion. Combining elements of a literary memoir, manual, biography, and meditation on the art of poetry, it comprises the poet’s response to a friend in the Christian north who had asked him eight questions about the Hebrew verse of al-Andalus.