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
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.
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
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.
I’m a fan of the apostrophe, so my mother sent me an article on just that topic. As the author points out: “How would you distinguish between my brother’s wives and my brothers’ wives ? Between The military claims we’re wrong and The military claims were wrong ?” My students sometimes say apostrophes don’t matter, but clearly they do.
We had the BCLT summer school a few weeks
ago and it’s been a busy summer generally, so it’s time for me to decompress a
bit before getting ready for the new academic year. See you back here soon and
have a good August!
Originally from Chicago, I lived in southern Sweden for nearly 5.5 years, and moved to southern Wales in September 2006. I completed a Ph.D. translation studies in June 2009 at Swansea University, with a dissertation on the translation of children's literature.
Now I live in Norwich, England, where I am a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, and I also work as a translator, writer, and editor.
Contact me at bravenewwords (AT) gmail (DOT) com.