Having lived in Muslim Spain from roughly 1021 to 1058, Solomon ibn Gabirol had the benefits of an extensive Jewish education, exposure to Arabic poetry, and knowledge of ancient philosophy and science, mostly through Arabic translations of Greek works. Although he was not the first great Hebrew poet to adapt the forms and styles Arabic verse, he was among the most skillful; he was also a sophisticated philosopher and theologian, although many of his prose works have not survived. Raymond Scheindlin writes:
Ibn Gabirol came along about 80 years after the introduction of the new Hebrew poetry, at a time when it was no longer in the experimental stage but had a significant body of tradition behind it. Samuel the Nagid (993–1056), about 30 years older than Ibn Gabirol, became one of the most memorable figures of medieval Jewish Spain through his voluminous and very personal body of poetry, in which he publicized his own brilliant public career, propagandized for his points of view, complimented friends, lamented deaths, and celebrated the pleasures enjoyed by himself and his aristocratic friends. It is this personal voice that was taken up by Ibn Gabirol and developed in a more somber, sometimes even bitter, key. . . .
Myriads of poets had written that love or sorrow had kept them up all night watching the stars, but only Ibn Gabirol would write, “but when I gaze at them all through the night, /
it seems as if my eyes are loops and they are hooks,” translating the emotional discomfort that keeps him awake into an almost unbearably concrete physical image. . . .
Other poets of the age wrote poetry in which they boast about their accomplishments and complain about their troubles, but, except when writing in a humorous vein, they never present themselves in a negative light. Ibn Gabirol’s personal poetry overturns this convention of positive self-presentation. He presents himself as a sickly, lonely, misunderstood, and miserable outsider; as a man of intellect and ambition that have not brought him due recognition; as a man seething with contempt for his fellow poets and his countrymen. He boasts of his vituperative powers, “My tongue is sharp as any court scribe’s pen / to praise a friend, to crush an enemy.”