Two medieval Hebrew devotional poems convention, evaluation, and "Platonic" vs "Metaphysical" poetry

Reuven Tsur*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


In eleventh century Hebrew poetry there was a convention that poets payed homage to some great poet by writing a poem similar to one of his poems, in the same metre, using the same monorhyme, and adopting some of its key expressions. In this article I am comparing such a "minimal pair" of poems, one by the great poet Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, and an homage to it by Levy Ibn Altaban. Traditional scholarship explores this poetry in terms of its own conventions, and cannot systematically distinguish between a masterpiece and its inferior imitation, as long as they conform with the conventions. In the present article I point out two systematic differences between the two poems. First, they exploit the same poetic conventions in two different stylistic structures: what John Crowe Ransom calls "Metaphysical" and "Platonic" poetry, respectively. Secondly, when viewed in perspective of "succinct thought and expression" (or the evaluative canons of "unity" and "complexity"), Ibn Gabirol's poem turns out to be far superior to Ibn Altaban's, in spite of the great similarities. Finally I consider briefly a pair of seventeenth-century examples by two great English poets, the sling image in Shakespeare's Hamlet, and in George Herbert's "Praise," the former being typically "Platonic," the latter typically "Metaphysical. " This may indicate that this distinction is descriptive, not evaluative.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)434-441
Number of pages8
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2007


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