Song of Songs Criticism - Essay

Origen (essay date 240)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7796 words.)