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The Song of Songs -- Anonymous

The first two chapters of
(Poem #423) The Song of Songs
I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as
the curtains of Solomon.

Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my
mother's children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards;
but mine own vineyard have I not kept.

Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy
flock to rest at noon: for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the
flocks of thy companions?

If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps
of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds' tents.

I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh's chariots.

Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with chains of gold.

We will make thee borders of gold with studs of silver.

While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell

A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my

My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of Engedi.

Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes.

Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green.

The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.


I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.

As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.

As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my

He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.

Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.

His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.

I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the
field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.

The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping
upon the hills.

My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall,
he looketh forth at the windows, showing himself through the lattice.

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come

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.

O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the
stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy
voice, and thy countenance is comely.

Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have
tender grapes.

My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.

Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou
like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.
-- Anonymous
(Attributed to Solomon in the Old Testament; also known as the 'Song of
(English translation: the King James Version of the Bible, 16th century)

I've spent most of the last 5 days listening to Palestrina's choral setting of
the Song of Songs ('Cantica Canticorum', in Latin), and all I can say is, Ooh.

(Digression: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was a 16th century composer of
sacred music. From the CD liner notes:

'The music of Palestrina represents undoubtedly the artistic culmination of the
church music reform advocated by the Council of Trent in the age of the
Counter-Reformation... Palestrina [had unmatched] skill in the creation of a
superb correspondence between text and music, and thus [fulfilled] an urgent
demand rising out of pastoral considerations... [F]or the individual educated in
the spirit of humanism, a composition doing full justice to a text required not
only the proper choice of musical figures in accordance with the natural flow of
the text to be set - certainly this as well - but also an intellectual
pervasiveness in which language, textual content, onomatopoeic interpretation
with musical figures, rhythm and euphony were combined to create a harmonious
whole in compliance with what at that time was considered Beauty. It is this
lofty idea of harmony and beauty - for that age the best conceivable integration
of intellect and artistic form, of internal clarity and creative truth, of a
classical sense of balance and order - which is Palestrina's legacy to the

and from Brittanica:

'[Palestrina's] 29 motets based on texts from the Song of Solomon afford
numerous examples of "madrigalisms": the use of suggestive musical phrases
evoking picturesque features, apparent either to the ear or to the eye,
sometimes to both.'

Incidentally, I read elsewhere that Bach was a keen student of Palestrina's
works - not surprising, given the contexts in which they wrote music and the
many similarities in their work).

The point of this long (but interesting, don't you think?) digression is to
restate a thesis I've made previously on the Minstrels: matching lyrics to text
is _hard_. I've mentioned a few popular musicians in this regard (see the links
below), but their art cannot compare with the greats of antiquity - Mozart's
arias, Bach's cantatas, and Palestrina's masses.

For example, there's a bit in today's piece which goes 'filii matris meae
pugnaverunt contra me' ('my mother's children were angry with me' - see the
second verse above); the softness and delicate beauty of the preceding line
suddenly swells into overwhelming emotion when the singers reach the phrase
'contra me' - the effect is powerful, moving, and absolutely glorious. As I said
before, Ooh.


PS. The poem itself? Lyrical, sensuous, and frankly erotic - gorgeous stuff.

[Minstrels Links]

poem #114, poem #287, poem #299.
 - all include short essays on the difficulties faced by lyricists (as opposed
to 'pure' poets). The first two are by myself; the third is a guest poem
submitted by Amit Chakrabarti.

We've actually covered quite a bit of popular music on the Minstrels, from
Dylan, Simon and Cohen to Willie Dixon and Richard Thompson. You can read their
work, and much much more, at the Minstrels website,


'spikenard' - a fragrant ointment, derived from a Himalayan aromatic plant
(Nardostachys jatamansi) of the valerian family.
'the voice of the turtle' - refers to the turtledove, not the slow and steady

21 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

FredGlynn3 said...

The Song of Songs which appears in both the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Tanakh)
and the Christian 'Old Testament' was probably written around 250 BCE in
Alexandria, Egypt. There were, at the time, a number of translators employed by
the Great Library there. The first task the translators were assigned
(according to legend) was the translation of the Hebrew Bible from Hebrew into Greek;
the result was called the Septuagint because of a tradition that it had been
translated by seventy (or seventy-two) translators in seventy-two days.

It was strongly influenced by Greek dramatic works. Certain verses--such as
1:8, 5:9, and 6:1--are equivalent to a Greek chorus consisting, in this
case, of the ladies of Solomon's Court (or harem). The principal characters are
Abishag the Shunamite who appears in I Kings 1 (erroneously referred to in
the Song of Songs as the Shulemite), Solomon, Abishag's shepherd lover.
Additional characters are three citizens of Jerusalem and the shepherds of Shunam.

To understand how the Song begins, imagine Abishag singing (or speaking)
lines 1:2-7, imagine the Ladies of the Court speaking line 1:8, Solomon speaking
lines 1:9-11, Abishag speaking lines 12-14, Solomon 1:15, Abishag 1:16-2:1,
etc. It's a bit more complicated than that when the stage instructions are
added in, but I think you can see the idea.

It would be really interesting to see it performed as a play or musical . . .

Fred Glynn

assiniboine said...

Perhaps more familiar to non-musicologist concert-goers than the Palestrina setting are those by Henry Pur (the "turtle" is of course a turtledove, not a reptile) and, biblical scholars tell me, whereas the
poetic language of the KJV inaccurately suggests that the original fairly pedestrian Greek of the New Testament is similarly exalted in tone, it is quite appropriate for the Hebrew of at least much of the Old and in particular the poetic texts such as this. On its face, as Thomas says, the Song of Songs is simply a series of amorous verses addressed by a pair of lovers to each other, expressing their physical and spiritual passion, and it seems a little curious, prima facie, that it survived in the canon of holy writ. But it has had all manner of theological interpretations grafted onto it over the millennia - the relationship of God for his chosen people Israel; the "mystical union betwixt Christ and his church"; Willan's setting is described as a motet to the Blessed Virgin Mary (!)). Perhaps a case of exegesis saves?

Be all that as it may, it remains what it is and stands entirely satisfactorily as ancient love poetry whose provenance in a culture vastly different from our own is indicated by its sometimes rather outré imagery.

FredGlynn3 said...

There are two relatively recent translations of The Song of Songs that may be
of interest. One is by Marcia Falk and comes in two different editions, one
with far more extensive commentaries than the other. The Bloch and Bloch
translation also has interesting commentaries including endnotes by the justly
highly respected bible scholar, Robert Alter of UC Berkeley.

I have put a reconstruction of The Song of Songs as a dramatic
production--complete with stage instructions, etc. in my recent book, Authors of the Bible.

Fred Glynn

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