Seeking a Song’s Meaning (continued)

Maybe, I thought, the retreat organized by Manhattan’s Trinity Church would help me to appreciate Song of Songs and some other poetry. There is an immediate difficulty, though, because Song was in translation. I always have doubts about whose words I am reading with translated literature. The translator must have made choices that could affect the meaning, and that seems especially true for poetry. Whether conscious or not, the translator’s own views and background no doubt affect the translation. We confronted that early in the discussion.

The Song is a poem with two main individual voices and some brief “choruses.” The original Hebrew, however, does not delineate the parts, and the translator must decide whether to indicate the voices or allow readers to make their own choices. I gather that the translator usually defines who is speaking. That was so in our version translated by Chana Bloch.

The translator’s choices can be very important. Early in the Song, the woman says, “I am dark, daughters of Jerusalem,/and I am beautiful.” To me, the line conveys that whether objectively beautiful or not, the speaker glories in her physicality. Because she is in love and is loved, she knows or feels that she is beautiful. But, as Nate indicated, some translators have produced a different version: “I am dark, daughters of Jerusalem,/but I am beautiful.” The difference between “I am dark and beautiful” and “I am dark but beautiful” is huge. A conjunction can be powerful. But which is it?

Song, however,also presented some of the typical difficulties I have with poetry. A metaphor could have different meanings, and the “right” one was not always clear. For example, the love poem said: “My brothers were angry with me/they made me guard the vineyards./I have not guarded my own.” What does “my vineyard” refer to? It could mean an actual piece of property (unlikely since women could not own property). Or it could mean integrity or self-worth. It, of course, could mean something sexual. Is the speaker confessing that she is not a virgin or perhaps even a slut? Is my choice better than yours or are all interpretations equal and the poem’s meaning up for grabs? Am I searching for the author’s meaning or the meaning that I think is best? And, of course, now I’m on my way down the rabbit hole of literary analysis.

The overarching question left open by Song is the identity of the lovers. The poem seems clear that while they may be deeply in love, or perhaps lust, they do not get permanently together. A whiff of the forbidden permeates the poem but nothing suggests what the impediment is. Perhaps he is already married; they are of different classes; they are Romeo-and-Juliet teenagers whose feuding families disapprove. We can only guess. Does it matter what scenario we pick? Well, yes. Isn’t the poem different if the man is a married adult or an adolescent whose parents don’t want him to stray from home?

There are many lovely images, some bordering on the erotic: “That day you seemed to me a tall palm tree/and your breasts/the clusters of its fruits./I said in my heart,/Let me climb into that palm tree/and take hold of its branches./ And oh, my your breasts be like clusters/of grapes on a vine, the scent/of your breath like apples,/your mouth good wine—”

I was familiar with some images but had not known that they had come from Song of Songs. For example: “I am the rose of Sharon,/the wild lily of the valleys.” “My beloved is mine and I am his./He feasts/in a field of lilies.”

Some of the fauna images, however, seem bizarre to a modern reader: “My love, as I dreamed of you as a mare.” “Your eyes are doves.” “Your hair/ like a flock of goats/bounding down Mount Gilead./Your teeth white ewes/all alike,/that come up fresh from the pond.” Hoping to make time (does anyone still say that?) with a young woman, I don’t think I would tell her she has hair like a goat and sheep’s teeth. Wooing seems to have been a bit different in those days.

There are, however, beautiful expressions of love and longing: “Bind me as a seal upon your heart,/a sign upon your arm.” And: “Great seas cannot extinguish love,/no river can sweep it away./If a man tried to buy love/with all the wealth of his house,/he would be despised.”

And then there is: ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, swear to me/that you will never awaken love/until it is ripe.” Beautiful. And deep. Or so I think until I examine that verse more closely. Then I realize that I need to grapple with a confusing metaphor. “Ripe” would seem to refer to a fruit or perhaps a vegetable, and you don’t wake up a pomegranate (too literal, I know, I know). Don’t partake of love until it is ripe might be more straightforward, but that is not what this version of Song proclaims. And even if I understood the phrase, why not awaken love before it is ripe? This is like much of poetry for me. Some phrase seems beautiful and meaningful until I try to dig deeper into its meaning, and I am lost.

Song of Songs, however, is not just a love poem. It may seem like a performance piece akin to a Greek play, but it is a book of the Bible. Placed there, it must have some deeper meaning than that of a heated call and response between a man and a woman. It must be about God’s relationship to an individual or perhaps more likely the relationship between God and the nation of Israel.

It is difficult to read the poem just on its own terms separated from its context. In my struggle to do that, I saw it “only” as a love poem without spiritual meaning. And, indeed, God is not mentioned in it. (That makes it rare in the Bible, but it does not stand alone. Esther, I gather, also has no mention of God, but don’t let me digress about Esther or I will get on to my love of hamantaschen.) Furthermore, Song does not overtly concern itself with laws, religion, or prophecy. To conclude that this is anything more than a secular love poem seems a bit of a reach. And yet, since it is a book of the Bible, many find in it a more sacred meaning.

(concluded February 1)