Saturday, August 24, 2013

Medieval Hebrew Poetry Translated into English

I originally published this review in the Wales Arts Review.

Into the Light: The Medieval Hebrew Poetry of Meir of Norwich
introduction by Keiron Pim, translated by Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth

“Exalted Lord, cherub-borne on high,/in your created heavens/you inspire awe.//My Lord is mighty to uphold./It befits us to serve him/for he is a holy God.” (p. 50)

So wrote Meir ben Eliahu in the late thirteenth century in his long poem “Who Is Like You?” And indeed Meir “serve[s]” this “holy God” through his poetry. He closes the poem by asking “Who is like you among the gods?” (p. 84)

One might ask who is like Meir among the poets.

Not much is known about Meir. He was a Jew in Norwich (or Norgitz, as the Jews called the city) during the Middle Ages, and lived through the expulsion of the Jews from  his town and from England at the behest of King Edward I in 1290. As Keiron Pim, a writer who put in motion the translation and publication of Meir’s long unknown poetry, puts it in his introduction to this bilingual edition of poems, in his work, “Meir captures the Norwich Jews’ psychological tumult: the oscillation between hope and despair, devotion and doubt, pride and humiliation; the infighting, the confusion, the terror. He catalogues his people’s predicament in ‘the land of the heavy-hearted and exhausted’, where they are scorned and labour under an ever-heavier yoke.” (p. 13)

You can forgive Meir for sounding angry and defiant in turns in his poems (as in “His foe will meet him in his filth/with the rod of his oppressor,/only evil lurking, in warp or woof.” (p. 38)). But despite his justified pain, he still “steadfastly/ declare[s] the kindness of the Lord./We, his beloved, trust in Yahweh/and in his holy servant, Moses.” (p. 84)

This work is important both because of the quality of the writing itself and also for what it can tell us about a period in time that is quite distant from today and about which not much is known. As Pim writes, “Meir’s is the only confirmed Anglo-Jewish poetic voice known from the far side of that lengthy hiatus [i.e. from 1290 until 1656, when Jews were readmitted to England] to describe the social conditions of the time. It is of considerable historical and cultural value.” (p. 10)

This publication includes 16 short poems and four long ones. The original Hebrew – complete with vowels – is printed alongside the English translations by Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth (the former has worked on Walt Whitman and the latter has written textbooks on Danish and also translated poet Michael Strunge from Danish to English). The book might appear scholarly, given the historical context, the detailed introduction by Pim, the note from the translators, and the other paratexts, such as explanations of some of the poems and the poetic features, but in fact it is a work that is for any audience.

In many ways, the poetry feels fairly modern. For example, Meir writes, “Afire with longing for the rains of Love,/here I am, thirsty in my inner heart;/with dew drops of desire the folk are fed,/I too, perhaps, will sip a lover’s cup.//My true Love threatens; faith shrivels in drought,/withers, like reeds, from want of water./O sprinkle upon it healing balm/that impure man may be made clean.” (p. 90) Although Meir often refers to his god an dhis faith in his work, the romantic overtones might remind a reader of Rumi, and surely these sentiments are ones that many can relate to.

The final lines of Meir’s poetry are “Take pleasure in my precious meditations,/these songs of exultation and of awe.” (p. 118) A reader doubtlessly does take pleasure from Meir’s writing. 

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