Commentary Magazine


The Song of Songs: A New Translation by Ariel and Chana Bloch

Kisses Sweeter than Wine

The Song of Songs: A New Translation
by Ariel and Chana Bloch
Random House. 257 pp. $27.50

“Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses!” So begins Ariel and Chana Bloch’s new translation of the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon as this biblical love poem is sometimes called. Their translation continues:

Your sweet loving
  is better than wine.

You are fragrant,
  you are myrrh and aloes.
All the young women want
  you.

Take me by the hand, let us
  run together.

My lover, my king, has
  brought me into his
    chambers.

We will laugh, you and I,
  and count
each kiss,
  better than wine.

Every one of them
  wants you.

It is instructive to compare this with the King James Version (KJV)—as always, despite its age of nearly 400 years, the touchstone for new Bible translations:

Let him kiss me with the
    kisses of his mouth: for thy
    love is better than wine.
Because of the savor of thy
    good ointments, thy name
    is as ointment poured
    forth, therefore do the
    virgins love thee.
Draw me, we will run after
    thee. The king hath brought
    me into his chambers:
    we will be glad and rejoice in
    thee; we will remember thy
    love more than wine:
    the upright love thee.

The first difference most readers will be struck by has to do with tone: even allowing for the King James’s now-archaic elements, the Bloch translation has a far greater directness and simplicity of diction that make it atmospherically, if not (as we shall see) lexically, closer to the original. It is blessed with what the King James lacks and the great and mysterious Hebrew poem has throughout: a breathlessness, a swift running from short phrase to short phrase that perfectly reflects the erotic excitement of the lovers who are the poem’s two principal figures.

The Blochs have also availed themselves of biblical scholarship, both contemporary and traditional, to improve readings found in the King James Version. Thus, for example, where the KJV renders the Hebrew mesharim ahevukha as “the upright love thee,” basing itself on the 4th-century Latin Vulgate’s recti te diligunt, which in turn draws on the Greek Septuagint, the Blochs follow both modern scholars and medieval Hebrew commentators in construing mesharim not as a noun but as an adverb meaning “indeed” or “truly.” And in a typical maneuver, they convey this adverbial intensifier not by reproducing it, which would have slowed down the line, but by changing the verb “love” to the more sexually charged “wants”: “Every one of them wants you.”

So far, so good. But what about other differences, where more is involved than “mere” questions of scholarship and style? Already hidden in the opening lines of the Blochs’ translation is an interpretative agenda which, while in keeping with some scholarly readings of the Song of Songs, works to deprive readers of the opportunity to discern the poem’s full complexity and to decide for themselves what to make of it.

Take these lines from the opening passage quoted above: “My lover, my king, has brought me into his chambers. / We will laugh, you and I, and count / each kiss, / better than wine.” Three verbal additions have been made here by the Blochs. The phrase “my lover,” the possessive pronoun “my” (instead of “the”) before “king,” and the appositional “you and I” do not exist in the Hebrew text—as indeed they do not in the (as usual) highly literal KJV In notes at the back of their book, the Blochs tell us they have made these changes because:

“The king” is to be understood as the Shulamite’s [i.e., the poem’s female speaker’s] courtly epithet for her lover. It is by no means a reference to King Solomon as a rival for her love, as some have supposed.

And elsewhere, the Blochs explain how this “supposition” came about:

Victorian . . . commentators supported the [once] popular “dramatic theory” [and] spun out of the poem a scenario with three principal characters: King Solomon, a beautiful country maiden, and her shepherd-lover. The king carries the maiden off to Jerusalem, and tries to convince her to exchange her humble station for a life at court, but the Shulamite, a paragon of virtue and devotion, steadfastly resists his blandishments and remains true to her rustic swain. This soap opera is embellished with a complicated plot line and a moral purpose, neither of which has any foundation in the original.

Yet, though such a theory is now out of fashion and unlikely to come back into vogue, the plain fact is that anyone reading the Hebrew poem’s opening without the Blochs’ interventions would almost certainly assume, first, that “the king,” whoever he is, is not the same person as the young woman’s lover; and second, that it is not the young woman and her lover who are “counting the kisses” between them but rather the young woman and the king who “remember” the absent lover.

Indeed, a royal personage appears four more times in the course of the Song of Songs, twice fleetingly in enigmatic contexts and twice in longer passages that refer explicitly to King Solomon, describing his power and sexual appetite. And while in none of these places does the Hebrew text suggest that the first of these two figures is identical with the male lover, that is the impression which the Blochs seek to create.

Consider chapter 1, verse 12. There, the KJV has: “While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof. A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.” Now the Blochs: “My king lay down beside me/and my fragrance/wakened the night./All night between my breasts/my love is a cluster of myrrh.” Here once again they have changed “the king” to “my king,” and they have construed a Hebrew verb which ordinarily has the sense of sitting or reclining at a meal as “lay.” Three verses farther on, the King James follows the Hebrew verbatim by having the Shulamite say: “Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant.” The Blochs give us, “You are beautiful, my king, and gentle,” substituting “king” for “beloved” without the slightest textual justification.

_____________

 

What does all this imply for our interpretation of the poem? Suppose we do not accept the “dramatic theory,” but suppose, as well, that the king and the lover are two different people. We would then have a highly puzzling work about which the Blochs’ conclusion makes little sense—namely, that its “very innocence . . . has the power to surprise,” or that, just as “the Eden story preserves a memory of wholeness and abundance from the beginning of time,” so the Song of Songs “locates that kingdom in human love.” No love poem, however exuberant, can be all that innocent if a powerful king lurks in the background coveting the female lover while “The bravest of Israel surround his bed/threescore warriors/each of them skilled in battle,/each with his sword on his thigh/against the terror of the night.”

Nor are the unexplained appearances of this king the only moments in the Song of Songs where a sudden shadow is cast on the lovers’ happiness. Far from it: over and over, like ominous leitmotifs, notes of danger and separation are sounded. The longest such passage, and one in which the Blochs are at their finest as translators, occurs in Chapter 5:

I was asleep but my heart stayed
   awake.
Listen!
my lover knocking
:

“Open, my sister, my friend,
my dove, my perfect one!
My hair is wet, drenched
With the dew of night.”

“But I have taken off my
    clothes,
how can I dress again?
I have bathed my feet,
must I dirty them?”

My love reached in for the latch
and my heart
beat wild
.

I rose to open to my love,
my fingers wet with myrrh,
sweet flowing myrrh
on the doorbolt
.

I opened to my love
but he had slipped away.
How I wanted him when he
  spoke!

I sought him everywhere
but could not find him.
I called his name
but he did not answer
.

Then the watchmen found me
as they went about the city.
They beat me, they bruised me,
they tore the shawl from my
  shoulders,
those watchmen of the walls
.

Swear to me, daughters of
  Jerusalem!
If you find him now
you must tell him
I am in the fever of love
.

Edenic? This passage reads more like a nightmare of sexual frustration of the kind we are all familiar with, one of those dreams in which, just as we are on the verge of a delicious satisfaction with a craved partner, we awake, “wet with myrrh,” to our own brutal solitude. And who are “the watchmen”? In the language of dream life they are the outer and inner forces that inhibit and punish sexual pleasure—but they are also, of course, employees of a city ruled by King Solomon. Which is why, although one can agree with the Blochs that King Solomon is “a central figure in the lovers’ fantasies, not a character in the poem,” it is hard to see how the two lovers are “enhance[d]” and “ennoble[d]” by “his reign [that] is invoked as a symbol of legendary splendor.”

The truth of the matter is that the two lovers in the Song of Songs are clearly threatened by something, and this undefined peril is associated with a social structure at whose apex stands the king. Although blissful images may predominate in the poem, they are regularly punctuated by ones tinged with anxiety, and for every verse like “His left hand beneath my head, / his right arm / holding me close,” there is a nearby counterpoint like “If only you were a brother / who nursed at my mother’s breast! / I would kiss you in the streets / and no one would scorn me.”

Indeed, it is only rarely in the Song of Songs that hands or heads touch; for the most part, the lovers view and long for each other from afar. The poem is built around tropes of distance like: “The voice of my love: listen!/bounding over the mountains toward me,/across the hills.” “My dove in the clefts of the rock,/in the shadow of the cliff, /let me see you.” “Who is that rising from the desert/like a pillar of smoke?” “Your hair/is like a flock of goats/bounding down Mount Gilead.” “Oh come with me, my bride/come down with me from Lebanon.” “Who is that rising like the morning star/clear as the moon,/bright as the blazing sun,/ daunting as the stars in their courses?”

In an Afterword to the Blochs’ translation, Robert Alter, who concurs with them that “the king is clearly . . . the lover himself,” speaks of these “odd spatial displacements” as “metaphors exfoliating into literal landscape . . . abundant cross-overs from the luxuriance of the landscape to the luxuriance of the human body.” That, they may be; equally, however, they are like dream images of that which remains beckoningly beyond reach. And it is surely significant that in its abrupt final verse—“Hurry, my love! Run away /my gazelle,/my wild stag/on the hills of cinnamon”—the poem ends on a note of jeopardy, flight, and apartness.

_____________

 

Despite its multiple voices (besides the lovers, one can identify at least two other sets of speakers), the Song of Songs is certainly not a formal drama, and not even, as some scholars once thought, the partially surviving remnant of one. Nor, as the Blochs point out, is there warrant for joining the ancients in reading it as a religious allegory, or certain moderns who consider it a garbled recension of an old Israelite nuptial rite or Mesopotamian sacred wedding. One can also agree with the Blochs that the poem is not the mere “anthology” of ancient love lyrics which some contemporary Bible critics consider it to be, but rather “a work of great subtlety and sophistication” that “asks to be read as a unified sequence.” The question is, then: a sequence unified by what?

I do not believe that the answer is, as the Blochs say, unified by “only the joy of [sexual] discovery,” or that the poem has “none of the dark complications of many familiar love stories.” Rather, with its sudden unannounced shifts of speakers, scenes, and moods, the Song of Songs is perhaps best read as a kind of dream sequence, sometimes confusing but ultimately coherent, in which the consummation of young love is menaced by a jealous world. And nowhere in this dream is there a more potent symbol of menace than the concubine-rich Solomon who, as we are told toward the close of the poem, “had a vineyard/on the Hill of Plenty./ He gave that vineyard to watchmen/and each would earn for its fruit/one thousand pieces of silver.”

“My vineyard is all my own,” the Shulamite cries back defiantly: but the king’s watchmen have already bruised her badly, and it is pointless to pretend that they have not.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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