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.

It 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.

The scent of the beloved’s robes is like Lebanon’s 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.

There 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 love’s 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 beloved’s 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.

From: 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.



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