Posted by: gdevi | January 27, 2010

Song of Songs Study Notes

Dr. G. Devi

English 220

Song of Songs Study Notes

Note on Allegory: Here is what we discussed about allegories in class. A text is allegorical when it means “this” but it also means “that.” There are two simultaneous levels of meaning in one text. The meaning is usually independent of who reads it; it is hard to miss an allegory. When you find that your main character’s name is Christian and his friend’s name is Hope and they live in a place called the Valley of Death and they have to ride on a train called Faith — well, the allegory is present whether we see it or not. Allegories always point to the social function of literature: it used to be that one of  the “functions” of imaginative writing was to supplement the revealed word of God or theological constructs; these functions change from culture to culture. Different historical periods give rise to different social functions. Song of Songs, Dante’s Divine Comedy, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress etc all fall under imaginative writing acting as analogues to theological points. The two levels are the Narrative level (the secular love story in the Songs) and the Conceptual level (theological concepts about God and followers; morals; religious edicts). Allegorical reading involves a practice of reading where we can move between the narrative level and the conceptual levels simultaneously by paying particular, close attention to the dual and multiple signification of the language used. The allegorical method is a continuous method; both stories are complete stories. You can see the allegorical method in those old animal fables you all have read–the tortoise and the geese are not just tortoise and the geese but they also stand for particular character types, particular moral positions, particular behaviors. Anything that has a conceptual level in addition to a narrative level tends towards allegory.

Song of Songs (the phrase indicates the superlative degree–as in King of Kings– the Highest Song) is a direct test of allegorical reading, if only because conventional religious scholarship forcefully insist on this most erotic of poems to denote God’s covenant with the people of Israel in the Jewish faith, and likewise Christ’s covenant with Christians in Christianity. While several phrases from this loveliest of poems have become the staple of secular love (“I am my beloved’s, and he is mine”; “his banner over me is love”; “I am the Rose of Sharon;” “I am the Lily of the Valley”; “Your love is better than wine”; “The voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land”; “Come my beloved let us go out into the vineyards” “Your lips are a thread of scarlet”; – so on and so forth – perhaps there is no other lyric poem with greater influence in both the western and eastern traditions than the Songs; images from the Songs have been reworked again and again by countless poets from the Jewish mystics of the Kabbalah, the great Christian mystic poet St. John of the Cross (Spiritual Canticle, Dark Night of the soul), to secular poets such as Shakespeare (The Phoenix and the Turtle – the turtle is a reference to the turtle dove, a small bird of the dove family that is the harbringer of Spring– and not the amphibian turtle—Turtle doves are supposed to be mated with the mythical bird Phoenix and is a symbol of eternal love), and even a modern writer such as John Steinbeck—the beautiful Rose of Sharon or “Rosasharn” in The Grapes of Wrath)—translators and commentators often allegorize the sensual and sexual content of the poem into a mystic union between a “people” and its deity—eros into agape. In many western traditions of both Judaism and Christianity, sexual love is equated with Original Sin, which caused the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. (There is a joke in Texas –“ Sex is very bad and a sin, but you should save it for someone you really love.” There you have the simple definition of a high theological point. These Texans!) Song of Songs runs directly counter to such established traditions of sexuality and religious edicts by describing in vivid detail the supremacy of physical love, love as an end in itself, and not for anything else.  Just think of the number of times the forbidden fruit “apple” and apple orchards are mentioned as landscape and witness to consummated love in the Songs! The whole poem is an invitation to love in a garden. The spiritual allegory is often artificially arrived at in our conscious readings.

Date of the Songs: The alternate title for the Song is the Song of Solomon, the Hebrew king who ruled Israel in 10 BCE, but as in many books of the Bible attributed to various authors, there is no clear evidence that King Solomon wrote the Songs. Biblical scholars date the text as having been compiled sometime between 5BCE-3BCE based on internal textual evidence. The Song is also known as Canticles or by its Hebrew name Shir ha-Shirim. In many Jewish traditions the Songs is read as a wedding song; in the Ashkenazi tradition it is read for Sabbath; in the Sephardic tradition it is recited every Friday night. Excerpts from the Song are read as hymns in the Christian tradition.

Structure of the Songs: Keep these questions in mind as you study the poem:

  • Who are the speakers? How many speakers are there? How can you differentiate them? What textual clues signal the transition between speakers?
  • The entire poem bursts forth in vivid images. (An image, you will remember, is a combined sensual/sensory and intellectual instant. It must appeal to one of our five senses but it should also evoke a strong cognitive response in us. Thus “starry sky” is not an image; “stars in the pools of her eyes” is an image.) Study the imagery (the chain of images used in a poem) in the Songs. What do they tell you about the speakers, the themes and the general ethos of the people who produced this poem?
  • The poem abounds in repetition of certain key passages. Most repetitions are identical. Some have slight variations. Some are inverted. Study the instances of the repetitions. What is their cumulative effect on our reading of the poem?
  • How is love conceptualized in the poem? What are the different stages of love portrayed in the poem? How is courtship portrayed? How is consummation portrayed?
  • There is great emphasis placed on the virginity and chastity of the woman in the poem. Are there other instances of particular feminine cultural features in the poem? What values are associated with men? What values are associated with women?
  • The man and the woman in the poem address each other as “my sister, my bride,” “my brother, my lover.” There are several references to the woman and the man wishing that they could take their beloved to the womb of their mothers. These are not instances of incestuous intent. The allegorical explanation is that we are all sisters and brothers from the one Holy Father; God as father and we as his children. There is an older tradition, an epistemological and ethical tradition, wherein lovers in the depth of their intimacy regard each other as brother and sister because it exemplifies one of the purest human relations possible. The great modern German poet Rilke has this to say about man, woman and love: “The great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maid, freed of all false feelings and reluctances, will seek each other not as opposites, but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will come together as human beings.” There is a beautiful song by our own modern bard Bob Dylan– “Oh Sister”–in his album Desire which says exactly the same thing. The Songs share in this tradition, perhaps even originated it. There is historical and textual evidence that lovers regarding their beloved as “sister” or “brother” was a Pan-Eastern phenomenon.

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