Friday, May 04, 2007

The wasf in the Song of Songs

Bonnard, Standing Nude, 1922-30

Like the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis 2, the lovers in the Song of Songs pass into the world of adult sexual maturity in an idealized and fertile landscape. In the Song, however, the only consequences for the lovers—as distinct from in the earlier creation story in Genesis—are the pleasures of sensual love. Indeed, one of the many truly unique qualities of the Song is the mutual character of the love and love-making it depicts. There are scores of masterfully drawn women characters in the Bible, of which the Shulamite is among the most fascinating. The lovers in the Song are presented as equals; they share space together in their world and in the lines of the poetry, each enjoying the other in a reciprocal and mutual physical attraction. The physical attraction of the verse itself enhances our perception of their bodies.

2:4 He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
2:5 Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
2:6 His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.
2:7 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.

Both the woman and the man are apprehended visually with these stunning images from the natural world, and we see the other from each perspective in a kind of mish-mash of voices that almost work like a magical charm. One of the characteristic poetic devices in the poem is the conventional lyric genre known as the wasf, an Arabic term for a love poem which praises the lover’s body, part by part, using elaborately expressive imagery drawn from the natural world. The images of the wasf might not generally describe the bodies directly, but rather suggest with ornate metaphors that the sort of pleasure which lovers obtain from gazing at the beloved can be found in nature, especially the kind of nature one finds in a garden. Garden imagery, then, associates with the body.

As the Bloch's put it:

Similes and metaphors from nature alternate with images from art and architecture in the four formal set-pieces where the lovers single out for praise the parts of each other's bodies; these poems belong to a genre often referred to by the Arabic term wasf. The images are not literally descriptive; what they convey is the delight of the lover in contemplating the beloved, finding in the body a reflected image of the world in its freshness and splendor.

The four wasf’s, or praise songs, in the Song are at 4:1-7, 5:10-16, 6:4-10, and 7:1-9. In this one she may be portrayed as dancing:

7:1 How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.
7:2 Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.
7:3 Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.
7:4 Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.
7:5 Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple; the king is held in the galleries.
7:6 How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!

In English poetry the standard method of describing a lover by moving from one part of the body to the next—generally from the head to the feet—is known as a blason. Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 (My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun") is an ironic version of the genre as it appears in the Renaissance.