The major poets of the period emerge in the third generation, and they are masters of their art in every respect and giants in the history of Hebrew literature. Shmu’el Hanagid, known in Arabic circles as Isma’il Ibn Naghrela (from the Latin niger, meaning “dark”), was a spectacular figure: prime minister of the Muslim state of Granada; leader of Spain’s Jewish community; military commander; scholar of religious law; biblical exegete and grammarian; patron of the arts; and poet. He was born in Cordoba to a well-established Meridian family and raised in the capital of the crumbling Andalusian caliphate. The city was ravaged during the Berber revolt of 1010–13, and the young Ibn Naghrela fled south with a large wave of Jewish and Muslim refugees. Impoverished and on his own, he made his way to Malaga, where, legend has it, he opened a spice shop and worked as a professional scribe. Impressing a Malagan vizier—the legend continues—with his Arabic literary style in letters that he wrote for the vizier’s servant (some say his concubine), who would send them on to her master in Granada, he was soon summoned to that city, where he gradually rose to power in both Muslim and Jewish spheres. He served at first as tax collector and then as the vizier’s assistant at the court of the Berber king of Granada, Habuus, and later as counselor to Habuus himself. In 1027 he was made nagid, governor of Granada’s (or all of Andalusia’s) Jewish community, and ten years later he was appointed by Habuus’s successor, his son Badiis, to the position of chief vizier of the kingdom and—most scholars believe—head of its Muslim army. He led Badiis’s forces into battle for sixteen of the next eighteen years, serving either as field commander or in a more administrative capacity as minister of defense or chief of staff. In his various public roles he helped establish Granada as one of the wealthiest and most powerful of the Andalusian Ta’ifa or Party States, and he continued to serve both Muslim and Jewish communities until he died, in 1056, not long after having returned from yet another military campaign.

Wherever one turns in HaNagid’s verse, one finds the tension between Arab and Jew woven into a peculiarly supple and at the same time metallic—and even defensive—sort of beauty. “His poems … are various and full of color, powerful in their contents, fine in their form, original in their ideas, and clear in their rhetoric,” wrote Moshe Ibn Ezra. “All that pertains to his compositions and works and letters is known to the uttermost edges of east and west and across the land and sea, and up to the leaders of the Babylonian community and the sages of Syria and the scholars of Egypt and the Nagids of [North] Africa and the lords of the West and the Spanish nobility.” Three books comprise the diwan, each of which was copied out by one of the poet’s young sons, who then also appended descriptive headings to many of the poems. Ben Tehillim (After Psalms) is perhaps the most original of the three, as it introduces to postbiblical Hebrew poetry the full range of Arabic subject matter, complete command of the new poetics, and an unforgettably personal cast to the biblical language of the verse. This combination of subject, tone, and impulse aligns HaNagid with the martial-lyric spirit of Second Samuel and the Davidic psalms, an affiliation HaNagid makes explicit at several points. Ben Tehillim contains intensely sensual and erotic lyrics, well-honed satirical poems, and perhaps the most moving series of elegies in the history of Hebrew poetry, which the poet wrote when his brother died in 1041. His second collection, Ben Mishle (After Proverbs), comprises a large body of canny, gnomic constructions that draw on the various traditions of the poet’s acquaintance and amounts to a personalized anthology of wisdom literature. Finally, Ben Qohelet (After Ecclesiastes) consists of piercing epigrams, stunning descriptions of natural phenomena, and powerful mortality poems of various lengths.

HaNagid’s oeuvre of nearly two thousand poems—the vast majority of which had been lost for centuries—was found by chance in a crate of manuscripts in 1924 and published for the first time only in the thirties (and in an edition accessible to the general reader of Hebrew only in the fifties). “It is an incomparable treasure,” poet Haim Nahman Bialik wrote to a friend, telling him of the manuscript’s discovery. “A kind of light shines on the marvelous prince—upon him and his period and the poets of his day. . . . The man is unrivaled in our history. See for yourself and decide.”