Mixed Metaphors, Mixed Forms: Across Medieval Hebrew and French Prosimetra

Isabelle Levy
Columbia University 

Something unexpected occurs in the prose of medieval Hebrew and French prosimetra: as the poetry in some mixed-form compositions becomes increasingly metapoetic and didactic, the prose, in turn, expresses metaphors typically rendered in verse. Such instances result in profoundly imaginative moments of formal maneuvering that challenge both the formal and fictional boundaries of such compositions. In this paper, I draw on attitudes towards and treatments of metaphor in mixed-form texts to examine the interplay between poetry and prose in Hebrew prosimetra by Solomon Ibn Tsaqbel and Jacob Ben Elʿazar, both of whom drew on a hybrid of Arabic and Romance poetics and thematics in crafting their mixed-form maqamas (the Romance elements conceivably traceable via the whereabouts of Occitan and Galician- Portuguese troubadours at the Iberian courts). French prosimetra of the same period, interestingly, offer the only comparable treatment of what I call concrete metaphors.

To situate this phenomenon in Hebrew compositions, I first focus on the use of poetry as a physical object that stands in for the beloved across in ancient Greek, Latin, classical Arabic and Romance compositions. After comparing the concrete metaphors in Ibn Tsaqbel and Ben Elʿazar’s compositions to those in al-Ḥarīrī and al-Hamādhāni’s classical Arabic maqāmāt and to al-Ḥarizi’s Hebrew maqāma, Sefer Taḥkemoni, I turn to Tibaut’s polymetric Le roman de la poire and the anonymous chantefable Aucassin et Nicolette for deeper correspondences. Not to be confused with the didactic practice of turning verse to prose, I see the prosification of metaphors traditionally found in poetry as a defining element of some medieval Jewish authors’ developing visions of fictional worldly love as one steeped in poetics even when articulated in prose.