Friday, May 04, 2007

Song of Songs Chapter 1

Bonnard, The Dining Room in the Country

The Song of Songs Chapter 1

1:1 - 1:4 The headline associates the Song with Solomon, asserting its excellence and sublimity by the phrase Song of Songs. Solomon did not write it, but the association may have preserved the text and permitted its inclusion in the canon. Would you let anything that might be by wise King Solomon vanish?

Association with King Solomon also allowed the Song to be seen as coming within the tradition of wisdom literature, making it seem for fitting for the canon. Also, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, so you can imagine the stories...

1:1 This verse associates the song with the wealthy and wise King of long ago. Nobody knows why it is linked to him, though it used to be assumed that it meant he wrote it. It may mean that King Solomon is the lover, or that the lover portrays the king.

1:1 - 1:4 The Shulamite praises her lover in an intense sexual fantasy of insistent desires and sensuous gratifications. A kiss back then, I think, would have been a far more rare and special event than we might think of it today, given how tightly guarded the women were. These are not casual caresses. The lyrics to the song jumble up the personal pronouns, so that speakers are sometimes difficult to identify. The shifting nature of the voices we hear is one of the mysterious beauties of the text; it has me wondering about its oral performance.

1:2 Here the woman, called the Shulamite, tells her lover that his lovemaking is intoxicating. She plays around with the personal pronoun, first calling her lover “him” then referring to him directly (“thy”). From the start, then, we may start getting confused about identities.

His love, she says, is more intoxicating than wine. This introduces two dominant and related thematic elements in the Song: love and intoxication. The poet uses both love and wine to intermingle the senses, so that we smell words, see sounds, hear visions, all resulting from the disorienting and nearly magical qualities of love. The technical term here is synesthesia.

1:3 She praises the young man’s sensual charms and sexual allure. Here the intermingling of senses begins with the lover’s name itself smelling as fine as the most expensive perfumes. She explains that is why other young women admire him. Such perfumes were an indication of great wealth (though, again, she may be pretending) and eroticism. In the original Hebrew, the words for “name” and “perfume” are similar, so this is wordplay.

1:4 She entices her lover to take her with him, using a verb (“draw”) that suggests how a farmer leads his animal or a general leads his prisoners. She calls him “king,” perhaps here pretending that she is a queen, too, and that their outdoors place of lovemaking is a royal palace. Here again she alternates between the second person (you) and the third (he).

The netbible says, “The expression “Bring me into your chambers” is a metonymy of cause for effect, that is, her desire is that she and her lover consummate their love through sexual intercourse in his bedroom.”

There have been many different interpretations on who actually speaks these lines.

1:5 - 1:6 show the Shulammite conversing with her friends, asserting her own physical beauty, and explaining the reason for her color—she has been in the sun. By way of a metaphor she might be speaking of losing her virginity here. Might not.

1:5 The Shulammite here may be indicating that she works outside, so her skin is dark, or that her skin is naturally dark. She may be apologizing or boasting here, but quite clear to me at least that she is happy with how she looks. She is addressing the “daughters of Jerusalem,” whom we take to be her girlfriends.

The theme here relates to the distinction between living and working outside, suggested by her dark external appearance, or living inside tents with curtains. We are presumably to think of her “inside” suggested here not as her “inner beauty” or moral character but rather as the physical channel into her body. Tents and curtains enclose and cover.

1:6 She personifies the sun, making it appear as something that looks upon her and burns her. When she says that her brothers are angry with her, we may be led to draw a comparison between them and the sun burning her. Her brothers may represent the patriarchy—otherwise notably absent throughout the poem. Presumably she admits here, when she says she has not guarded her own vineyard, that she has not kept her virginity, though some regard this as an image for her appearance generally. The vineyard commonly refers to her sexuality, as in 6:11 and 7:13. This, then, reinforces the theme of inner/outer from the previous verse.

1:7She asks her lover where he takes his sheep to feed and rest, presumably asking where she may find him. It is common in the Bible to find a connection between straying from the path and shepherding; Christianity does some wondrous things with it. There is also a suggestion, since the original Hebrew refers to a veiled woman, that she is asking him how she can not be mistaken for a prostitute by other men (patriarchy) as she walks about among the flocks of sheep.

1:8 Here the young man responds to her, advising her to follow the path of the sheep, and to feed her own sheep by the tents.

The Song of Songs Chapter 1

1:9 He compares her with a beautiful horse, which may suggest sexual imagery of mounting and riding. Presumably, the image is meant to suggest that as a mare she would excite the stallions of the Pharaoh’s army. It calls to mind Sappho's image in #16 of what people find beautiful.

1:10 Royal horses were decorated with elaborate ornament, as is the Shulamite.

1:11 He promises her jewelry.

1:12 Here the Shulamite speaks again. Spikenard (nard) is a rare and expensive scent made from a plant that grows in the Himalayas.

1:13 Myrrh is perfume made from an Arabian shrub; it was used on clothing or hung, suspended in fat, between the breasts to melt and perfume the woman’s body all over. Like nard, it has highly erotic connotations as a perfume that acts something like a love potion.

1:14 Henna is a flowering shrub with intense aromas often used as a purple dye. Ein Gedi is a fertile oasis on the Dead Sea which is in stark contrast to the surrounding desert.

1:15 He likens her eyes to doves. In 5:12 she does the same for him. The image seems to refer to such elements of the eyes as their loveliness and associations with love, and such things as color, quickness, fluttering, shape, gentleness, peacefulness, defenselessness, and so on. Most women were veiled in public, meaning that the eyes were about all you could see, or praise.

1:16 This suggests not just that they lie down outside to make love, but that wherever they lie becomes fruitful.

1:17 As earlier in the chambers of the king, the lovers may here pretend that the outdoors is indoors, or that the indoors of their bedroom is outdoors.