Selected Poems of Shmuel Hanagid

To readers of headlines about tensions between the State of Israel and Arab nations, Shmuel HaNagid’s poems can seem exotic indeed. These poems epitomize the Golden Age in which they were written, a renaissance of Muslim and Jewish culture in medieval Spain. HaNagid, considered the first great Hebrew poet of this age, served as a high-ranking functionary in the Muslim government. Not only in content, often reflecting his life in the Muslim court, but also in style and form, does HaNagid’s work indicate the enriching integration of Arabic and Hebraic cultures.

Also exotic for readers largely familiar with poetry as a means of pure self-expression may be the emphasis on composing poetry as an intellectual exercise that characterized HaNagid and other Golden Age poets. The poetry’s almost mosaic construction demonstrates this emphasis. Characteristic of HaNagid’s work is the shibbuts, or inlay of references and citations, with its effect of elaborate indirection and multiplication of meanings.

Such embedding of references mostly obscure to the contemporary reader makes the translator’s job an especially difficult one, as translator Peter Cole acknowledges in his introduction. While he supplies a wealth of endnotes to offer an “x-ray” of the poetry, Cole claims that the poems can and should also be read without them. He aims foremost for the “translation of a sustaining poetry reality,” and given that Cole himself is a published poet, his aim generally hits the mark. Cole’s translations, compared to others, are more dynamic and therefore, one might say, more “modern.”

Enthusiasts of poetry are recommended to this collection, the most comprehensive published to date in English, not only on its own terms but also because the poetry of the Golden Age is often proposed as a “missing link” in the development of the Troubadour lyric, precursor of Western poetry and song.