Friday, May 04, 2007

Figurative language in The Song of Songs

Bonnard, Cherry Pie, 1908

The poetry of the Song is based primarily on metaphors and similes. Metaphor is the figurative expression in language also known as the trope, in which ordinary language shifts from its normal, day to day meanings to evoke new meanings by way of reference to something else with some sort of shared characteristic. If the ordinary sense of a word does not make sense we look around for other ways to make sense, for new meanings. For example, here are the words of the lover praising his beloved:

1:15 Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes.

We recognize that this starts out in perfectly ordinary, if a bit breathless, language, but that the ending, thou hast dove’s eyes, is not a literal description of the Shulammite’s eyes. It is a figurative description, using figurative language—in this case, metaphor. The meanings and images we find in the phrase “dove’s eyes” (and there are bound to be several) help us to see and to feel how the language evokes not simply what her eyes might look like but what it feels like to see them, and what, then, as a result of this image, we are to make of her. Figurative language, especially as it is used in the Song, enhances our sense perception and moves us from often intense physical experiences to new realms of meaning.

As we read the Song we notice that the landscape is constantly used as a metaphor, that is, there are frequent comparisons made between the flora and fauna which thrive in the fertile landscape and other things, notably various parts of the shapely young bodies of the lovers. In Chapter 2 of the song the Shulammite says ( 2:1 ) I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. Her lover responds, (2:2) As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. She is saying, in effect, that she is a flower, and all that implies, and he responds that compared to other women she is the flower and they are the thorns, and all that implies.

The landscape is also used as a metonymy, that is, the same pomegranates, lilies, and gazelles the lovers compare each other to are things they might realistically encounter, even reach out and pluck as they walk along. A metonymy is a figure in which the part stands for the whole. These items stand for the landscape or the garden from whence they grow. The metonymy of the lily, the thorns, or the gazelle tells us where we are, what the flora and fauna is like. The figure of metonymy, then, acts in a more or less realistic fashion, standing as a part of the entire landscape we are meant to envision as we read the poem.

In order to read closely we consider how metaphor and metonymy work in the text. In a metaphor we compare one thing with another, changing ordinary meaning into a new meaning. In this passage the lover describes the Shulamite’s breasts:

4:5 Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.

This image of the young woman’s breasts is likened to a scene of two deer eating flowers. As with the image of “dove’s eyes,” we are asked to consider the woman’s appearance (her eyes, her breasts) in terms of some element from the natural world. This is a simile. A simile acts like a metaphor, only the words “like” or “as” call our attention to the explicit act of comparing. The simile here enhances our sense not so much of what the woman’s breasts look like as how their color, motion, timidity, and beauty might make us feel.

In a metonymy a part stands for a whole. The metonymy, then, suggests a realistic scene. As metonymies, the twin roes and the lilies do not stand alone in the landscape but summon up everything else—the entire scene. They stand for the area of which they are a part, suggesting by their singular images the entire landscape in which they may be found.

In the Song, then, the lushness of the landscape metaphorically reproduces the beauty of the lovers and what they are feeling, and at the same time metonymic details from the landscape connect us to the rest of that particular world, so that we conjure up an entire scene, which can be both imaginary and real at the same time. This makes for a very interesting reading experience, since whatever we encounter seems to quiver with sense and experience, taking us both to the real world of Palestine in the spring and to imaginative places of enhanced sensory experience and symbolic meaning.