Poem of the Week

Sex, the Doctor and a Hebrew Sonnet

Ephraim Luzzatto sketches a healer who is a heel.

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The doctor who was ensnared by love

Ephraim Luzzatto

A certain pretty girl, in love with a swain
came to a doctor’s house for treatment
saying: For days my soul has been in pain
and at night I haven’t been sleeping.

The luscious queen stood right beside him.
He touched her to see if a fever had hit
when a sudden fire flared up inside him –
he too fell in love, and was snared in a pit.

The man was dumbstruck, his heartbeat raced
till she asked again, demure and polite:
Please sir, can you cure my dolorous case?

King David (above, with harp) lusting for Bathsheba, 1526 Lucas Cranach the Elder, Gemäldegalerie
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Then said he: O beloved, we must change place
-- this time I’m the sick one. Just hold me tight,
and assuage my pains in your embrace.

From Eleh Bnei Ne’urim “These are the sons of ones youth", London, 1768. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

Some things evidently never change, among them the way men who should know better are prone to allow organs other than their minds to lead them in the company of women – especially young and pretty women over whom they often have some professional clout. In Hebrew culture, this goes back at least to King David’s reign: He lusted for Bathsheba, impregnated her and arranged for her husband to get killed in battle.

In modern Israel, even though there is a law against sexual harassment, publicized examples abound in the police, the military, the healing professions, academic institutions and politics, even at the very top. Former president Moshe Katsav is serving a prison term for sexual assault and rape, though he told the victim that “he was in love with her”  -- just like the doctor in this poem.

While sonnets were not particularly fashionable in London when poet and physician Ephraim Luzzatto (1729–1792) settled there in 1763, Italian Jews had been writing them in Hebrew since about the end of the 13th century. The form of this one is a variant of the classical Italian sonnet, with two four-line stanzas followed by two three-line stanzas, as distinct from the English sonnet of three four-line stanzas and a couplet wrapping it up.

The first quatrain sets the scene of the drama, and provides the trigger for the situation: The pretty young woman is lovesick. The second quatrain moves from dialogue to action: The doctor touches the young woman for professional purposes – and experiences lust.

The phrase “luscious queen” is a stab at translating the unusual Hebrew word “shaigal.” It appears just twice in the Bible, applied to a woman at a king’s side and it is translated into English as “queen.” However some scholars believe a more correct translation would be “concubine” or even something lower down on the scale, as the three-letter root shin-gimmel-lamed denotes sexual congress, and presumably the poet chose the word with this in in mind. The final six lines – a kind of “Scene 2” -- dramatize the girl’s innocence and the doctor’s attempt at seduction.

Luzzatto was born in Friuli into an eminent, scholarly, wealthy family that still thrives in Italy, Israel and elsewhere. He studied medicine in Padua, and published two volumes of poetry. A 1911 article in The Jewish Quarterly Review described him as “the first truly modern lyric poet” in Hebrew.

*Musing: Does the poet judge the doctor?

*Bonus: Eros, Elvis and “Fever”