Shelomo Ibn Gabirol (1021/22 – c. 1057/58)
Philosopher, misanthrope, and spectacular fly in the ointment of the refined eleventh-century Andalusian-Jewish elite, Shelomo Ibn Gabirol, the second major poet of the period, comes down to us as one of the most complicated intellectual figures of the entire Hebrew Middle Ages. He was born in either 1021 or 1022, in Malaga, to an undistinguished family that may have fled the collapsing capital of the Umayyad caliphate, Cordoba, with the same wave of refugees that included Shmu’el HaNagid. At some point his father moved the family north to Saragossa, and Ibn Gabirol—or, in Arab circles, Abu Ayyub Sulaiman Ibn Yahya Ibn Jabirul—was raised in that important center of Islamic and Jewish learning. Ibn Gabirol’s father died while the precocious son was still in his early teens, and the young man was looked after by a Jewish notable at the Saragossan court, Yequtiel Ibn Hasan al-Mutawakkil Ibn Qabrun. He was writing accomplished poems by age sixteen, important ones by nineteen, though he was ill, already suffering from a disease that would leave him embittered and in constant pain; the condition has never been precisely identified, but scholars speculate that it was most likely tuberculosis of the skin. We can infer from his poems that he was short and ugly. In 1039 Yequtiel became involved in court intrigue and was executed, and Ibn Gabirol lost his patron. Ostracized by the religious and intellectual community of the city, he left (or was forced to leave) Saragossa sometime after 1045, and most scholars assume that he went south, to Granada, in order to try his luck at HaNagid’s court. Things may have worked out for a while, but the two men clashed when the young, upstart poet insulted his elder poet-patron. The meager trail we have of the poet vanishes there, with Ibn Gabirol in his mid-twenties. It is probable that later in life he supported himself by writing for the synagogue, wandering from one community to another. He was known, says Ibn Ezra, for his philosophical temperament, as well as for his “angry spirit . . . and demon within, which he was not able to control.”
Employing the same set of literary tools as HaNagid, Ibn Gabirol produced a poetry that stands in stark contrast to the work of his worldlier mentor. His verse is metaphysical through and through, and his brooding, passionate nature left him as isolated a figure as HaNagid was social. Ibn Gabirol’s poems are distinctive for their embodiment of complex thinking, scathing satire, and a strikingly modern, self-conscious, even defiant religious devotion. His religious lyrics are considered by many to be the most powerful of their kind in the medieval Hebrew tradition, and his long cosmological masterpiece, “Kingdom’s Crown,” is acknowledged today as one of the greatest poems in all of Hebrew literature. His major philosophical opus, the Neoplatonic Fountain of Life, became an important work in the history of Scholastic philosophy (via the Latin translation of the original Arabic). Throughout the Middle Ages and into the nineteenth century, its author was thought to be a Muslim or Christian by the name of Avicebron, Avicembron, or Avicebrol; in 1846, a Jewish-French scholar discovered that the book was in fact by the poet Shelomo Ibn Gabirol. Also of serious interest to readers of Ibn Gabirol’s poetry is his short but striking ethical treatise, Tiqqun Middot HaNefesh (On the Improvement of the Moral Qualities). Written in Arabic when the poet was twenty-four, it graphs an undissociated sensibility in which the physical and psychological endowments, or impulses, are correlated to ethical conduct. Knowledge of the soul in this not always decipherable scheme is a prerequisite for its development, or ascent, but the soul can be known solely in a descent into physical detail. The microcosm, that is, nearly always mirrors the macrocosm. Ibn Gabirol’s philosophical vision is reflected, often in sublime fashion, throughout his liturgical verse—whose surface maintains the transparent, communal register required by the occasion, while encoding a far more subversive, personal, and confrontational dimension. That vision also infuses a wide variety of seemingly conventional secular works, such as “See the Sun,” “The Garden,” “I Love You,” and “I’d Give Up My Soul Itself,” as well as the poet’s sui generis poems of crisis. More than any of the other medieval Hebrew poets, Ibn Gabirol is, above all, a conflicted poet in pursuit of Wisdom.