Song of Songs Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.