Song of Songs Essay - Critical Essays

Song of Songs


Song of Songs c. 500 B.C. - c. 300 B.C.

Hebrew poem.

An erotic poem, the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon and the Canticle of Canticles) is one of the Kethubim, or "Writings," in the third part of the Hebrew Bible. Attributed to King Solomon, the Song was admitted to the Hebrew Canon as an allegory of God's relationship with Israel. Its mysterious language has since led to centuries of extensive and sometimes fanciful commentary comprising many different modes of allegorical exegesis and secular interpretation. In some readings, the poem's eroticism is an expression of the love of King Solomon for a young shepherdess—the "Shulamite"—or a celebration of Solomon's wedding. In the Christian era, the Song has been read as an allegory of the bridegroom Christ's relationship with his bride, the Church, and it found an important place in Roman Catholic marian theology, especially in the Middle Ages. Subsequent research has revealed possible links with Tammuz cult worship, with Syrian and Egyptian love poetry, and with traditions of folk marriage celebration; but despite much modern and secular focus on the poem's sensuousness and erotic imagery, the Song retains its place in the Hebrew Canon as a holy allegory and continues to be used in the liturgy of Passover.

Plot and Major Characters

The Song of Songs has been generally considered a love poem which takes the form of a dramatic dialogue concerning the mutual devotion of young, unmarried, heterosexual lovers. Each lover invokes the other's most glorious and delightful qualities in rich imagery taken from the world around them: scents, animals, plants, landscapes, even architecture. In some interpretations additional personae, the girls of Jerusalem, who receive guidance in the ways of love, and the brothers of the main female voice of the poem, function as a choric commentary on the erotic action of the drama.

The plot of the Song of Songs is inseparable from the debate over its interpretation. While convention often divides the Song into eight parts, and there are recurrences of theme and image in a series of narrative fragments, the number of "poems" believed to make up the work varies from one translator to the next. The lovers use pastoral and regal associations to describe each other, invoking the smell and taste of spices and perfumes, and pleasant images of landscape and nature. The Song's rich metaphorical language avoids straightforward description of physical lovemaking; instead the female is a "lotus among brambles" and the male "resembles a buck, / Or a young stag;" his mouth is "sweetness." The female lover's body, too, is described in metaphor; she is a tended vineyard, her breasts "like two fauns." For the female persona especially, love's pleasures are mitigated by its attendant emotional pain: she twice goes in search of her lover, at night in the city, and is once stopped, and beaten, by the city guards. While love is consistently described as a blissful state, the Song also treats the trials of separation, where the lovers pine for each other's presence. But throughout the poem, fulsome descriptions of topography, of fauna and flora, and of the smells and tastes of life in ancient Israel are repeatedly mingled with descriptions of the lovers' bodies to associate sexual love with the pleasure and joy of life.

Major Themes

The ostensible and literal subject of the Song of Songs is erotic love, the delight in the presence and in the thought of the loved one. However, thematic interpretations have often depended upon the context in which the Song would have been read or performed. The voices of the poem speak of physical beauty and sensuous pleasure, but in early allegorical exegesis the loving relationship thus described is construed to be that of God and Israel; in later Christian readings it describes that between Christ and the Church. In the literal, secular reading, the major theme is one of the celebration and exploration of the delights and difficulties attendant upon sexual love. References to Solomon and to weddings have prompted interpretations of the Song as an epithalamium, or poem celebrating marriage, either specifically for the King and his bride, or generally as part of a wider literature of marriage celebration. Claims that the Song is part of an ancient pagan cult have prompted speculation that its major theme is fertility, while another modern reading links the Song to cult celebrations of the primacy of love and rebirth in the face of death.

Textual History

Although written in biblical Hebrew, the Song of Songs contains many traces of other languages: Ugaritic, Persian, Aramaic, and Mishnaic Hebrew. Much uncertainty surrounds the composition date of the Song, and speculations have been dependent upon clues to be found in the text itself. Most scholars believe that the work was written between 500 B.C. and 300 B.C. The Song was long attributed to Solomon himself on the basis of the numerous references to him within the poem, and the work has also been attributed to Isaiah and Hezekiah; however, the unity of the work suggests that a later, anonymous editor may have compiled the extant text. There are a series of textual versions: the Septaguint, or Greek translation of the Old Testament, probably composed around 100 B.C.; the Vulgate Canticum Canticorum (398), by Saint Jerome; and the Peshitta. The Masoretic Hebrew version of the Song had no stanzaic divisions, and new editions have divided the text into chapter and verse according to the translator's interpretation. English translations of the Song have been numerous; notable are those of Henry Ainsworth (1639), Christian David Ginsburg (1857), Marvin H. Pope (1977), and Michael V. Fox (1985).

Critical Reception

The fundamental and continuing debate in interpretation of the Song of Songs is whether the poem is a religious allegory, a pagan cult liturgy, or a secular, sensuous work of erotic literature. The admission of the Song to the Scriptural Canon by Rabbinical scholars is thought to have depended upon its association with King Solomon and on the allegorical reading of the work's erotic imagery. Reference is made to the the Song in the Talmud and the Tar gum, and Rabbi Akiba (50-132) gave the Song its well-known title, the "holy of holies." In Christian biblical scholarship the subject of the Song has been considered either an allegory of Christ's relation to the Church, or of the relationship between the Soul and the Divine Word. The Christian theologian Origen considered the poem a drama played by Solomon and a Shulammite shepherd girl.

Modern readings have focused increasingly on the Song's literal expression of human love and on other mystical meaning. In 1860 Auguste Renan compared the Song with modern Syrian wedding poetry, and comparisons with Egyptian love lyrics have located the Song within a broader cultural context. Claims have also been made that the Song was a cult liturgy, linked either to the Osiris cult or the Tammuz-Istar cult. H. H. Rowley has seen the poem as a collection of several bold love poems with allusions to a cult, but has suggested that the Song is not itself a cult liturgy, while Marvin Pope, too, has argued for a secular interpretation of the Song's cult origins. The 1857 interpretation of Ginsburg is considered influential for such feminist readings as that of Carol Meyers.

Principal English Translations

Solomons Song of Songs, in English Metre: With Annotations and References to Other Scriptures, for the Easier Understanding of It (translated by Henry Ainsworth) 1639 A Brief Exposition of the Whole Book of Canticles; or, Song of Solomon (translated by John Cotton) 1648

Song of Songs: or, Sacred Idyls. Translated from the Original Hebrew with Notes Critical and Explanatory (translated by John Mason Good) 1803

The Song of Songs, Translated From the Original Hebrew with a Commentary, Historical and Critical (translated by Christian David Ginsburg) 1857

The Song of Songs Unveiled: A New Translation and Exposition (translated by Benjamin Weiss) 1859

Solomon's Song: Translated and Explained (translated by Leonard Withington) 1861

The Book of Canticles: A New Rhythmical Translation with Restoration of the Hebrew Text (translated by Paul Haupt) 1902

The Song of Songs, Being a Collection of Love Lyrics of Ancient Palestine: A New Translation Based on a Revised Text, Together with the Origin, Growth, and Interpretation of the Songs (translated by Morris Jastrow, Jr.) 1921

The Song of Songs, Translated and Interpreted as a Dramatic Poem (translated by Leroy Waterman) 1948

The Song of Songs: A Study, Modern Translation, and Commentary (translated by Robert Gordis) 1954; revised 1974

The Song of Songs, Translated from the Original Hebrew with an Introduction and Explanations (translated by Hugh J. Schonfield) 1959

The Song of Songs (translated by Robert Graves) 1973

Song of Songs: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (translated by Marvin H. Pope) 1977

The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (translated by Michael V. Fox) 1985

The Song of Fourteen Songs (translated by Michael D. Goulder) 1986

The Voice of My Beloved (translated by E. Ann Matter) 1990


Origen (essay date 240)

SOURCE: "Commentary: Prologue," in "The Song of Songs": Commentary and Homilies, translated by R. P. Lawson, The Newman Press, 1957, pp. 21-57.

[In the following prologue to his commentary, written in 240, Origen ascribes the Song of Songs to Solomon, noting the importance of a cautious distinction between "passionate love" and "charity" to an interpretation of the dramatic poem's "secret metaphors."]

1. The Song of Songs a Drama of Mystical Meaning

It seems to me that this little book is an epithalamium, that is to say, a marriage-song, which Solomon wrote in the form of a drama and sang under the figure of the...

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St. Gregory of Nyssa (essay date late 4th century)

SOURCE: "The First Homily," in Commentary on the "Song of Songs," translated by Casimir McCambley, Hellenic College Press, 1987, pp. 43-56.

[In the following allegorical interpretation and explanation of its "mysteries," St. Gregory advises that the Song of Songs is a literary embodiment of the purity and chastity of Christian love. This essay is believed to have been written toward the end of the fourth century]

Those of you who, according to the advice of St. Paul, have stripped off the old man with his deeds and desires as you would a filthy garment and have wrapped yourselves by the purity of your lives in the bright garments of the Lord which he displayed...

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St. Bernard of Clairvaux (essay date c. 1136)

SOURCE: "Sermon I" and "Sermon 2," in On the "Song of Songs" I, translated by Kilian Walsh, Irish University Press, 1971, pp. 1-15.

[In the following three sermons, presented around 1136, St. Bernard explains the title of the Song of Songs; the kiss as a symbol of God's presence and as a sustainer of faith; and suggests an interpretive approach to this and to other biblical texts.]

Sermon 1


The instructions that I address to you, my brothers, will differ from those I should deliver to people in the world, at least the manner will be different. The preacher who desires to follow St...

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St. Bernard of Clairvaux (essay date c. 1136)

SOURCE: "Sermon 31," in On the "Song of Songs" II, translated by Kilian Walsh, Cistercian Publications, 1976, pp. 124-33.

[See annotation to previous excerpt]

Sermon 31


Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at noon?" The Word, who is the Bridegroom, often makes himself known under more than one form to those who are fervent. Why so? Doubtless because he cannot be seen yet as he is. That vision is unchanging, because the form in which he will then be seen is unchanging; for he is, and can suffer no change determined by present, past or...

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R. Abraham b. Isaac ha-Levi TaMaKH (essay date c. 14th century)

SOURCE: An introduction and "Chapter I," in Commentary on the Song of Songs, translated by Leon A. Feldman, Van Gorcum & Comp., 1970, pp. 50-3, 57-75.

[In the following commentary, written sometime in the fourteenth century, the author provides both a literal interpretation of the Song's "plain meaning," and a parallel "occult interpretation" in which the Song is construed as an allegory of Jewish exile.]


The wise king has said: "Honor not thyself in the presence of a king and stand not in the place of the great." This precept should suffice to keep us...

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Martin Luther (lecture date 1539)

SOURCE: "Lectures on the Song of Solomon," translated by Ian Siggins, in Luther's Works, Vol. 15, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Hilton C. Oswald, Concordia Publishing, 1972, pp. 191-210.

[In the following excerpt from a series of lectures delivered in 1539, Luther provides a close exegesis of the first chapter of the Song of Songs. Luther attributes the Song specifically to Solomon, suggesting that the work deals with Solomon's government and his people's relationship with God.]


Many commentators have produced all manner of interpretations of this song of King...

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Robert Lowth (lecture date 1787)

SOURCE: "Lecture XXX: The Song of Solomon not a Regular Drama" and "Lecture XXXI: Of the Subject and Style of Solomon's Song," in Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, Vol. II, 1787. Reprint by Garland Publishing, Inc., 1971, pp. 287-308, 309-44.

[In the following lectures, Lowth considers the Song of Songs as a form of dramatic poetry and suggests, after consideration of other Hebrew poetry, that the work should be read allegorically.]

Thus much with suffice for that inferior species of Dramatic Poetry, or rather that Dramatic form which may be assumed by any species of poem. The more perfect and regular Drama, that I mean which consists of a...

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H. H. Rowley (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Interpretation of the Song of Songs," in The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament, Rev. ed., Basil Blackwell, 1965, pp. 197-245.

[In the following essay originally published in 1952, Rowley provides a brief historical survey of scholarship on the Song of Songs, outlining the allegorical, historical, Christian, and dramatic readings of the work, and considering its function and meaning.]

There is no book of the Old Testament which has found greater variety of interpretation than the Song of Songs. Nor can it be said that there is any real agreement amongst scholars to-day as to the origin and significance of the work....

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Richard N. Soulen (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Wasfs of the Song of Songs and Hermeneutic," in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 11, June, 1967, pp. 183-90.

[In the following essay, Soulen focuses on the function and effect of imagistic, descriptive passages, or wasfs, in chapters 4 and 7 of the Song of Songs.]

In order to justify another look at the Song of Songs one need not resort to the kind of hyperbole recently employed by the Catholic scholar A. Feuillet [in "Einige scheinbare Widerspriuche des Hohenliedes," Biblische Zeitschrift, 1964]: "Es gibt kein erregenderes Problem als das des Hohenliedes." An earlier remark of his [from "La formule...

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Chaim Rabin (essay date 1973-74)

SOURCE: "The Song of Songs and Tamil Poetry," in Studies in Religion, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1973/74, pp. 205-19.

[In the following essay, Rabin explores the connections between the Songs of Songs and Indianspecifically Tamil—poetry.]


Letters written by Mesopotamian merchants between 2200 and 1900 B.C. often mention the country of Melukkha with which they traded. The late Benno Landsberger conclusively proved that this was Northwest India, where at that time the Indus civilization was flourishing.

In various places in Mesopotamia a few dozen of the typical Indus culture seals...

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Marvin H. Pope (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: An introduction in Song of Songs, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1977, pp. 17-229.

[In the following essay, Pope contends that the emphasis in the Song of Songs on expressions of love might link the work to the occasion of a funeral feast.]


It has been recognized by many commentators that the setting of Love and Passion in opposition to the power of Death and Hell in 8:6c,d is the climax of the Canticle and the burden of its message: that Love is the only power that can cope with Death. Throughout the Song the joys of physical love are asserted, but this singular mention of Death and his domain, Sheol,...

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Phyllis Trible (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Love's Lyrics Redeemed," in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Fortress Press, 1978, pp. 144-65.

[In the following essay, Trible explores thematic and structural links between the Song of Songs and the book of Genesis.]

Love is bone of bone and flesh of flesh. Thus, I hear the Song of Songs. It speaks from lover to lover with whispers of intimacy, shouts of ecstasy, and silences of consummation. At the same time, its unnamed voices reach out to include the world in their symphony of eroticism. This movement between the private and the public invites all companions to enter a garden of delight.

Genesis 2-3 is the hermeneutical...

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Robert Alter (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Garden of Metaphor," in The Art of Biblical Poetry, Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1985, pp. 185-203.

[In the following essay, Alter conducts a close formal analysis of the Song of Songs as poetry, exploring the work's imagery and metaphor. Alter finds the Song a rare instance in biblical poetry of "uninhibited self-delighting play" and "elegant aesthetic form."]

The Song of Songs comprises what are surely the most exquisite poems that have come down to us from ancient Israel, but the poetic principles on which they are shaped are in several ways instructively untypical of biblical verse. When it was more the scholarly fashion to date...

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Carol Meyers (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Gender Imagery in the Song of Songs," in The Hebrew Annual Review, Vol. 10, 1986, pp. 209-23.

[In the following essay, Meyers offers a feminist reading of the Song of Songs, considering the use of architectural and faunal imagery in the Song's treatment of gender. She finds in the poem a rare insight into the private, "domestic realm" of ancient Israel.]

I. Introduction: Imagery in the Song

In no other book of the Hebrew Bible does the imagery figure so prominently as it does in the Song of Songs. The rich and extravagant array of figurative language boldly draws the reader into the world so joyously...

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Marcia Falk (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Contexts, Themes, and Motifs," Love Lyrics from the Bible, HarperCollins, 1990, 137-61.

[In the following essay, revised from an original 1982 publication, Falk addresses issues of setting, theme, and motif in the Song of Songs that have arisen from her translation of the work. She finds the Song "extraordinarily rich with sensual imagery."]

Woven into the tapestry of the Song are recurrent patterns that suggest the presence of literary conventions, analogous in some ways to the Petrarchan conventions of Renaissance poetry. To uncover and illuminate recurrent material in the Song may draw us closer to the distant cultural source of...

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E. Ann Matter (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Woman Who is the All: The Virgin Mary and the Song of Songs," in The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990, pp. 151-77.

[In the following essay, Matter explores medieval Christian interpretations of the Song of Songs which associate the figure of the Bride with the Virgin Mary.]

The female gender of one of the voices of the Song of Songs, so much more obvious in Latin than in English, elicited little comment from the medieval exegetes who worked in the allegorical and tropological modes. Of course, as both Ecclesia and anima are feminine nouns in...

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