An erotic and spiritual vision

There's something deliciously disturbing about all the liquids, the milk, wine and honey, in the Song of Solomon, says AS Byatt
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The Song of Songs is a cry of erotic longing and a description of erotic bliss. It is a lyrical drama whose speakers and episodes run into each other as in a dream or a vision. There is a female voice, which is both virginal and knowing, triumphant and lost. There is a male voice, impatient, exulting, wooing. There is a chorus of unseen commentators, and other groups, the women of Jerusalem, the watchmen, the three-score valiant men who stand around the bed of Solomon. The scene shifts from walled garden to walled city to green bedchamber to the mountains. The woman is black and comely; the man is white and ruddy, with a head like fine gold and with bushy locks, black as a raven. The ending is abrupt and the story is fragmentary. It is a canonical biblical text, and yet there is no mention of God or of religion. It haunts many cultures, eastern and western.

It was ascribed, along with Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, to King Solomon, son of David. Solomon, according to The First Book of Kings, had "seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines"; he was famous both for his wisdom and his lechery. The Song was thought to refer to his marriage with the daughter of Pharoah, or to his fabled meeting with the Queen of Sheba, who tested him with riddles, the answers to which were to do with the bodies of women. Jewish commentators saw the woman as Israel, black with her sins; the reading of the Song was prescribed during the festival of the Passover.

The Fathers of the Christian church were perturbed by its erotic charge, its voluptuous incitation. They assumed that a sacred text must have a spiritual meaning. As Origen wrote in the third century, "If these things are not to be understood spiritually, are they not simply fabulous tales? If they have no hidden mystery, are they not unworthy of God? The Song became part of an intricate web of allegorical readings of Scripture. These readings constructed both the theology and the poetry of a religion centred on the historical incarnation of the eternal and spiritual. The Song became also an extraordinary paradox - a rich, fleshy metaphor for the divine longing that would cause the wise soul to reject the flesh and its desires. Origen's explication turned on the doubleness of the Latin word, amor, love, which was used to describe carnal desire and spiritual yearning. Origen himself went as far as self-castration in his search for pure spiritual love. He allegorised the Bride's withdrawal into the marriage chamber as the withdrawal of the pure soul from all extraneous earthly desires.

Origen identified the Bride with Ecclesia, the embattled, sinful Christian church, who had to learn to respond to the loving care and demands of her Divine Spouse, Christ. The Song's imagery of the bridegroom knocking at a locked door, the bride waking too late, became assimilated into Christ's own parable of the sleepy, unwatchful bridesmaidens. In the twelfth century commentators interpreted the Song in terms of the Virgin Mary, the Mother- Bride , the sister-spouse, the mediator. The allegory had for them a literal historical meaning, to be teased out. The Bride also became the Hetaira, romantic heroine and childlike maiden, wooed by Christ the very perfect knight. Poems about Mary Magdalene, repentant beauty, spiritual sinner, who broke an alabaster vase of precious ointment over her Lord's feet, used the imagery of the Song.

The spiritual interpreters, most strikingly St Bernard of Clairvaux, in his sermons on The Song of Songs, saw the individual human soul itself as the Beloved, drawn towards Christ initially through love of the created world. The Latin word for the soul is anima, which is a feminine word, and it is striking that the allegorical commentaries and interpretations of the Song written by celibate monks, take the passive, open, receptive female consciousness as the central consciousness of the drama. The human soul, male or female, in this erotic mysticism, is a woman waiting for her master, her lord, her bridegroom. The saint's rhetoric, like his vision of the Song, includes the erotic, lingers over it, only to dismiss it.

"You must not give an earth-bound meaning to this colouring of corruptible flesh, to this red liquid suffused beneath her pearly skin, to enhance her bodily beauty in the pink and white loveliness of her cheeks. For the substance of the soul is incorporeal and invisible...."

Or

"Shall we imagine for ourselves a huge powerful man, gripped by love for an absent girl, rushing to her desired embraces, bounding over those mountains and hills which we see raised up so high over the plain that their summit seems to penetrate the clouds? It is certainly not proper to fabricate bodily fantasies in this way, and especially when treating of this spiritual Song...."

And St Bernard, preaching to the abbots of his order, on "remembering the breasts" makes them into imagined women and mothers: "Be gentle, avoid harshness, give up blows, show your breasts: let your bosoms be fat with milk, not swollen with wrath."

The fathers of the church were preaching an incarnate God to an incarnate congregation, creatures made up of flesh and spirit. They could rationalise their treatment of The Song of Songs - which is not a rational structure - by saying that its inspired author had used the language of the flesh to entice the incarnate souls to the love of the Incarnate Word, speaking through the flesh. Their ingenuity and resourceful reconstructions and deconstructions can seem both beautiful and absurd to an unbeliever seduced and baffled by the literal presence of the Song itself. Is it the nature of the text or the nature of the theology that brings about all the building of these airy places, such a reader may ask her or himself.

Ann Astell gives some beautiful examples of love lyrics, sacred and profane, from the Middle Ages. I myself found The Song of Songs everywhere in the thesis I never finished, which was about sensuous metaphors for the spiritual in the seventeenth century, and turned out to be about narratives of fleshly temptations in gardens, from Spenser's Bower of Bliss to Paradise Lost and the temptation of Christ in Paradise Regained. The words of the Song sing enchantingly in English, for instance in Henry Vaughan's The Night.

God's silent searching flight

When my Lord's head is filled with dew and all

His locks are wet with the clear drops of night

His still, soft call;

His knocking time; the soul's dumb watch,

When spirits her fair kinred catch.

Marvell's delightful conceits in The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn combine classical pastoral with the Song's imagery of innocence in a closed garden, lilies and roses, the beloved as a hart or a roe deer on the mountains. And Milton compares his Paradise garden to

Those gardens feigned

Or of revived Adonis, or renowned

Alcinous, host of old Laertes' son,

Or that, not mystic, where the sapient king

Held dalliance with his fair Egyptian spouse.

Alastair Fowler, a great editor, points out that Milton is here drawing an analogy between Solomon and Adam, both wise, both uxorious, both lovers in gardens. He points out the ambiguity of the word "sapient", meaning, in its Latin root, "gaining knowledge by tasting". This concept, like most commentary on the Song, finds the spirit in the flesh. Fowler goes on to point out that Milton's references to "sapience" in The Song of Songs tend to associate Solomon with Satan, and with the latter's interest in Eve's beauty, and in the taste of the apples of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Paradise Lost (Book v, 11.40-8), Eve recounts to Adam a dream in which Satan tempts her in a parody of the lover of the Song. It is interesting in this context that Solomon turned to the worship of Ashtaroth through the persuasion of his wives.

"For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.

"For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom, the abomination of the Ammonites..." (1 Kings 11: 4-5)

St Augustine, before Milton, compared the sins of Adam and Solomon, led into temptation of their love for their wives. Modern scholars see The Song of Songs as an echo of something more ancient, the marriage songs of the sacred marriages of the ancient Mesopotamian gods and goddesses, Inana and Dumuzi, Ishtar and Tammuz, gods whose worship entailed sacred prostitution, the making of gardens, the mourning of the vanished young god land the celebration of his return with the spring. These deities were, in some versions, brother and sister - "my sister, my spouse". The return and the rebirth of Adonis (who was the same god as Tammuz, since Adonis simply means "Lord") coincided with the Spring, and the return of vegetation.

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth;

The time of the singing of birds is come,

And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

The fig tree putteth forth her green figs,

And the vines with the tender grape

Give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one,

And come away.

Frazer, in The Golden Bough, compares the kings of the Bible to the priest- kings of the Syrian Lord Adonis, and quotes St Jerome, who "tells us that Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of the Lord, was shaded by a grove of that still older Syrian Lord Adonis, and that where the infant Jesus had wept, the lover of Venus was bewailed." Jerome, Frazer says, appears to have believed that the grove was planted by heathens to defile the sacred spot. Frazer himself believes that the grove was older, and that in any case the Christian god who was the bread of life, born in Bethlehem, "the House of Bread" was related to the older corn spirit.

Whatever the spiritual meanings and antecedents, the immediate experience of reading the Song is both sensuously exciting and baffling. As a narrative, it does not hold together. Moments of intense dramatic feeling - the Shulamite's description of her rejected blackness, the knocking and vanishing of the bridegroom, her wandering the streets of Jerusalem, the unidentified "we" expressing concern for their little sister who has no breasts - all these are both entirely memorable and fleeting. The same, in a different way, can be said of the descriptions, concrete and metaphorical, of the bodies of the lovers. The woman is seen as a city with walls and turrets, as a garden enclosed and a fountain sealed, as an army with banners, as a flock of goats, as sheep, as corn and wine, as perfumes. She is both vividly solid and somehow diffused into city, army, riches and jewels, the landscape of pastoral herdsmen, and orchards with every kind of tree. I remember my first bewildered reading, as a western child with a compulsory Bible in her desk, of this dream world. What corresponded to that longing for love with which we are all born (or so I supposed) were powerful abstract phrases: "For love is as strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame."

There was something deliciously disturbing about all the liquids, the milk, wine and honey, something tantalising about the glimpses of bodies and doors. But many of the specific metaphors were disturbing differently - "thy teeth are as a flock of sheep which go up from the washing, whereof every lone beareth twins, and there is not lone barren among them." The analogy between teeth and sheep (whiteness, similarity) seems tenuous, and is made more tenuous by the overloading of the twins and the fertility - it is as though, I intuited even as a child, the speaker is a shepherd congratulating himself on the abundance of his possessions, flocks and women. There is something immediately powerful, in most cultures. I should think, about the virginal images: "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse, a spring shut up, a fountain sealed."

The image of woman as tree - "this thy stature is like to a palm tree and thy breasts like clusters of grapes" - allows the imagination to make and combine both flesh and plant. But again and again, this is simply not possible. There is an element of excess, of too much, too much fruit, too many riches, too much landscape, too much architecture, eyes like fishpools, nose like a tower of Lebanon, breasts like twin roes, a creature who in one verse is fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners. When the navel is compared to a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor and the belly is immediately afterwards compared to a heap of wheat set about with lilies, the effect is to make the wine and wheat richly present and the human body shadowy, vanishing, mysterious. Everything is present, the lovers are a whole world, rich and strange, metamorphosed by the poetic, or religious imagination, into both the natural world and the world of human artefacts and precious things. The winds blow from both north and south, the sun and the moon both shine, fountains, wells and streams are full of living water. And the more the metaphors are heaped up, the more they become interchangeable, the more the desire which sings in the Song becomes a polymorphous celebration of everything.

Or perhaps of itself, which is why I have always preferred to call it The Song of Songs, rather than The Song of Solomon. It is a poem about the making of poetry, the naming of the world, the construction of the world by the human imagination, powered by the erotic desire which both Freud and Darwin celebrated also. Later English poets learned from it a kind of eastern poetry which was diffused and exceeding, rather than precise and contained. The mythical erotic English gardens of Tennyson's Maud owe much to the Song. Tennyson combines his Isle of Wight cedars with the cedars of Lebanon, as he combines the lilies and roses of the Song with an English garden. Browning complained that Tennyson had diffused the feeling that should have been applied to the woman into the landscape. But Tennyson knew what he was doing.The Song continues to haunt our imaginations, between the absurd and the sublime. Dorothy Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon quotes it absurdly. Harriet Vane, watching Lord Peter Wimsey in a blazer, reflects that she has "married England". But her lord, on waking after their wedding night, addresses her as "my Shulamite".

And in quite another world, the Song inhabits some of the greatest and most terrible poetry of our time, the poems in German of Paul Celan. The figure of Shulamith, whose name occurs only once in the Bible, appears in many forms in his work. His riddling poems about terror and loss, about the Holocaust and Israel, mourn both the Rose of Sharon, and, specifically, "my sister, my spouse', the lost and destroyed. His biographer, John Felstiner, traces the tradition by which Shulamith, whose name is associated with Shalom (peace) was seen by the mystical tradition as a figure both for the Shechinah (the divine light) and for the promised return to Zion. "Return, return, O Shulamite; return, return, that we may look upon thee." She appears in Todesfuge (Deathfugue) in a repeated, chanted juxtaposition with the doomed Margaret of Goethe's Faust.

Dein goldenes Haar Margarete

Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

(your golden hair, Margareta,

your ashen hair, Shulamith)

Here, Shulamith's burned blackness, her ashen hair, are irredeemable, made smoke, buried in the air. Her darkness cancels and darkens Margarete's innocent suffering. This new, dreadful figuration of Shulamith ends a poem as powerful and unforgettable as the Song itself. It adds a meaning and a figure that can never be separated from the changing poetic world of the Song, whatever else may be added.

The Song of Solomon, with an introduction by AS Byatt, is published by Canongate on Thursday (pounds 1).

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