The beautiful poem that takes up all of Chapter 4, ending in the first verse
of Chapter 5 provides an apt illustration of the poetic art of The Song
of Songs. I will look closely in this article at the wonderful transformations
that the landscape of fragrant mountains and gardens undergoes from line 11
to the end of the poem. The first mountain and hill in line 11 are metaphorical,
referring to the body of the beloved or, perhaps, as some have proposed, more
specifically to the mons veneris.
is interesting that the use of two nouns in the construct state to form a
metaphor (mountain of myrrh, hill of frankincense)
is quite rare elsewhere in biblical poetry, though it will be come a standard
procedure in postbiblical Hebrew poetry. The natural manner with which the
poet adopts that device here reflects how readily objects in the Song of
Songs are changed into metaphors. The Hebrew for frankincense
is levonah, which sets up an intriguing faux raccord with Lebanon,
levanon, two lines down. From the body as landscape an identification
already adumbrated in the comparison of hair to flocks coming down from the
mountain and teeth to ewes coming up from the washing the poem moves
to an actual landscape with real rather than figurative promontories.
If domesticated or in any case gentle animals populate the
metaphorical landscape at the beginning, there is a new note of danger or
excitement in the allusion to the lairs of panthers and lions on the real
northern mountainside. The repeated verb ravish in line 16, apparently
derived from lev, heart, picks up in its sound (libavtini)
the inter-echo of levonah (frankincense) and levanon (Lebanon),
and so triangulates the body-as-landscape, the external landscape, and the
passion the beloved inspires.
The last thirteen lines of the poem, as the speaker moves
toward the consummation of love intimated in lines 26-29, reflect much more
of an orchestration of the semantic fields of the metaphors: fruit, honey,
milk, wine, and, in consonance with the sweet fluidity of this list of edibles,
a spring of fresh flowing water and all the conceivable spices that could
grow in a well irrigated garden. Lebanon, which as we have seen has already
played an important role in threading back and forth between the literal and
figurative landscapes, continues to serve as a unifier.
scent of the beloveds robes is like Lebanons scent (line 18),
no doubt because Lebanon is a place where aromatic trees grow, but also with
the suggestion (again fusing figurative with literal) that the scent of Lebanon
clings to her dress because she has just returned from there (lines 13-15).
All aromatic woods in line 21 is literally in the Hebrew all
the trees of levonah, and the echo of levonah-levanon is carried forward
two lines later when the locked spring in the garden wells up with flowing
water (nozlim, an untranslatable poetic synonym for water) from the
mountain streams of Lebanon.
is a suggestive crossover back from the actual landscape to a metaphorical
one. The garden at the end that the lover enters and to come
to or enter often has a technical sexual meaning in biblical
Hebrew is the body of the beloved; one is not hard put to see the physiological
fact alluded to in the fragrant flowing of line 25 (the same root as nozlim
in line 23) that precedes the enjoyment of luscious fruit.
Although we know, and surely the original audience was intended to know, that
the last half of the poem conjures up a delectable scene of loves consummation,
this garden of aromatic plants, wafted by the gentle winds, watered by a hidden
spring, is in its own right an alluring presence to the imagination (before
and after any decoding into a detailed set of sexual allusions). The poetry
by the end becomes a kind of self-transcendence of double meaning: the beloveds
body is, in a sense, represented as a garden, but it also turns
into a real garden, magically continuous with the mountain landscape so aptly
introduced at the midpoint of the poem.
The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter (Basic Books, 1985).
Reprinted by permission of the author.
||Robert Alter is professor
of Hebrew and Comparative literature at the University of California
at Berkeley. He has written broadly on biblical and modern Hebrew literature.