The version of ‘‘Two Eclipses’’ reproduced here is a modern English translation of a poem written by a Spaniard in Hebrew a millennium ago. Any translator of such a poem has to make a number of decisions and compromises in making it accessible to a modern reader while retaining essential qualities of the original. One alternative is to attempt a literal, phrase-by-phrase, line-byline translation. This alternative rarely works, for the English version is likely to sound awkward and forced. Further, the grammars and sound systems of English and Hebrew are different, making a unit of language that sounds perfectly normal in one sound awkward in the other. In translating poetry, the translator can try to maintain the rhythm of the original, but doing so requires taking considerable liberties with the original language. Or the translator can try to maintain the tone of the original, which again requires compromises with language and meter along the way. Or the translator can focus on the imagery of the original, but doing so might entail ignoring rhythm. Any translation, then, is a series of compromises, but the translation of poetry is far more problematic than that of prose because of the more rigorously formal nature of poetry.
A translator of HaNagid’s poems—as well as the translator of those of most of his contemporaries—can rely on one element of the poems to serve as a kind of glue, or as a set of girders that support the poems. Any reader of HaNagid’s ‘‘Two Eclipses’’ who is versed in the Old Testament would readily recognize the links between the poem and the poetry of various biblical books. Some two thirds of the Old Testament is written in verse rather than prose. Some of these books, such as Psalms and Proverbs, are recognizably in verse and are studied today as examples of biblical literature; in this regard, the most recognizably literary book of the Old Testament is the Song of Solomon, which consists entirely of lyric poetry. Other books, though, that are not thought of as ‘‘poetry’’ were in fact written in a poetic style. Genesis is usually translated and printed as prose, but in fact in its original form, it is far more poetic than is usually thought. It was customary—indeed, almost obligatory—for a medieval poet writing in Hebrew to draw on the language and style of the Old Testament. A Jewish philosopher, poet, and scholar like HaNagid saw his life and circumstances as part of an unbroken chain of events in Jewish history, a chain that reached back to the historical events recorded in Genesis and Exodus and that extended through the present on into a future. This chain of events represented the working out of the Jewish nation’s covenant with God as God’s chosen people. Accordingly, a poem such as ‘‘Two Eclipses’’ would in effect be regarded as an extension of and gloss on the truths of the Old Testament, made manifest in HaNagid’s life in medieval Spain.
So far, the emphasis has been on the Hebrew Bible. HaNagid, though, lived in a Muslim community and was fluent in Arabic. He studied the Quran, the scripture of Islam, and he was surrounded by a ‘‘Golden Age’’ of Arabic and Islamic art, including not only architecture and ornamentation but poetry as well. Like the Hebrew poets, Arabic poets linked their poetry to the Quran, using its metrics and vocabulary as the raw materials out of which they shaped their poetry. (It should be noted, however, that Islam is divided on the question of whether the Prophet Muhammad allowed poetry; some passages of the Quran are critical of poets, others seem to admire poets and poetry. Many Muslims reject categorically any notion that the Quran is poetic, but it does not follow that others do not find poetic elements in the Quran.) One of the techniques of Islamic poetry is the use of Quranic language as a kind of inlay, similar to mosaics. Islamic architecture and ornamentation did not allow for the representation of living things, especially humans, so it focused instead on color and bravura geometrical effects. This aesthetic was transferred to poetry by the use of language from the Quran that was ‘‘inlaid’’ into Arabic poetry. HaNagid would have been familiar with much of this poetry, which reinforced a similar aesthetic in Hebrew poetry. Hebrew authors used the word shibbuts to refer to this technique, in which biblical language is ‘‘inlaid’’ into poems.
This connection with the Old Testament can be found at nearly every turn. In line 2, for example, the speaker urges his friend to awaken from sleep and to awaken the dawn. The line virtually quotes Psalm 57:8, ‘‘I will awake the dawn!’’ The poet’s comparison of the sky to a leopard skin echoes Jeremiah 13:23, where the writer asks whether a leopard can change his spots. The suggestion in the poem that the earth is reddened as though tears are flowing echoes Job 16:16: ‘‘My face is red with weeping.’’ When the poet says that God has covered the moon with a circle of earth, he echoes Isaiah 40:22: ‘‘It is he who sits above the circle of the earth.’’ When the poet compares the face of the moon to a face that is wounded and bruised, the line is inspired by Isaiah 1:6: ‘‘From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds.’’ The poet’s odd image of the moth eating the Bear and Orion was likely inspired by Isaiah 50:9: ‘‘Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.’’ This image is continued in Isaiah 51:8: ‘‘For the moth will eat them up like a garment.’’ Numerous other instances of these kinds of biblical echoes can be found from other Old Testament books: the Song of Solomon, Jeremiah, Chronicles, Samuel, Zechariah, Daniel, Joel, Malachi, Deuteronomy, Nehemiah, Joshua, Samuel, and Judges. These echoes continue to the end of the poem, when the poet envisions that God will allay his fear on Judgment Day, reflecting Isaiah 7:3–4: ‘‘And the Lord said to Isaiah, ‘Go forth to meet Ahaz . . . and say to him, ‘Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.’’’’
At issue is not whether the poet quotes the Bible. Sometimes he did, lifting verses or phrases from the Old Testament and using them almost word for word. Usually, though, the poet who wrote in the biblical tradition used the vocabulary and imagery of the Bible. The Bible became in effect the poet’s lexicon, his dictionary and phrase book. His readers, who likely read and studied the Old Testament and had likely committed large portions of it to memory, would have immediately recognized the biblical language. This language was the structuring principle of HaNagid’s poems, including ‘‘Two Eclipses,’’ and any translator of his poetry would likely work to preserve that biblical language in bringing HaNagid’s work to new generations of readers.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Shmuel Hanagid, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.
Michael O’Neal, Critical Essay on ‘‘Two Eclipses,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.