Poem of the week: The Song of Songs | Books


From The Song of Songs

1. I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.

2. As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.

3. As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.

4. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.

5. Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.

6. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.

7. I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.

8. The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.

9. My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.

10. My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

11. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

12. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

13. The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

14. O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.

15. Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.

16, My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.

17. Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.

The English translation of the Song of Songs is the text that people of all faiths and none would cite if they wanted to claim the King James Bible as poetry. Its eight rhapsodic chapters chant the story of the great love of the Shulamite and her shepherd. This link, which includes the original Hebrew, has a different English translation than the KJA – less resonantly beautiful but a useful addition.

The young woman from the vineyards of Shulem seems initially to have gone willingly to King Solomon’s court. She is wined and dined by him in the first chapter. But subsequent chapters show her total resistance to his advances. Left alone with memories, dreams and unbearable desire, she wanders into the city, where she is beaten and robbed (the fifth chapter). The Shepherd eventually comes to the court and takes her home to be his bride – although a further separation is envisaged at the end. Solomon doesn’t directly intervene again in the story.

“Song of Songs” means the supreme song, the best. It’s introduced in Ch 1 as Solomon’s song, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been composed by one of his resident entertainers – or even one of his wives. It’s astonishing, if he wrote the song and based it on his own experiences, how vividly he has captured the Shulamite’s feelings and thoughts.

The Song is occasionally interpreted as a dramatic work. It has very little immediate action: the Shulamite dominates “the stage” with her extended soliloquy, part narrative, part eulogy. But there are convincing readings that give the King a small speaking part. My dialogic interpretation of the opening passages takes its cue from AS Carrier’s essay, A Study of the Form and Content of the Song of Songs.

The Shulamite speaks first, the flower analogy expressing her modesty, since the rose and lily are ordinary wild flowers. Solomon replies with a compliment designed to contrast his “lily” favourably with his other wives and concubines. This fulsomeness only prompts her to sing the praises of her beloved shepherd although in verse four, she seems to remember Solomon, and to admit his initial conquest (“… his banner over me was love”).

Solomon retreats (possibly on war business): the Shulamite is alone with her women attendants who are preparing her for bed. “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love,” she pleads.

There are various English translations of “flagons” – flowers, a flask of perfume, raisin-cakes, a flagon of wine. Since “stay” means “sustain”, the raisin cakes or the wine make particular sense. Wine, with the additional benefit of a soporific, would “stay” the drinker in a further sense of the verb.

Speaking as if in an intoxicated dream, the young woman recalls the wonderful greening and brightening of springtime at home, a natural flowering of which her love is an intrinsic part. The passage has inspired other poems: one touching example being Thick Orchards by Jean Ingelow, which takes as its epigraph: “The time of the singing of birds is come.”

The Shepherd’s appearance at the Shulamite’s lattice may be remembered from an earlier occasion. The memory is so vivid and emotive, her desire so intense, that the Shulamite believes she can see him, and she can still see him after he has taken flight: “O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.”

Theologians interpret Song of Songs as allegory. The Shulamite’s desire is that of the church for Christ, its fidelity threatened, but firmly sustained. Perhaps it began, though, as a traditional protest story about an early form of the droit du seigneur. As a wedding song, its performance would have included a chorus of women attendants and guests, musicians, dancers, maybe a ritual sacrifice or two. The couple marrying would be delighted to identify with the legendary Shulamite and her gorgeous shepherd. The triumph of heartfelt young love over enshrined wealth and greed always makes a satisfying story, especially when told this passionately and sensuously.