Leonard Withington.

Solomon's song: translated and explained, in three parts online

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of his first impressions ; and then, moreover, the igno-
rance to which his closest investigations lead him is not
the ignorance from which he started. The ignorance
of experience is not the ignorance of inexperience.
The precise ideas which he has been seeking serve by
contrast to show the nature of that proximate and prob-
able ground on which, after all his excursions, his soul
must rest. We know all things by contrast and com-
parison. Of those absolute ideas which the metaphysi-


cian seeks, we know two things, — we know they must
exist, and, secondly, we know we never can find them.
This teaches us the amplitude of knowledge, and gives
us a lesson of humility. Indeed, when we consider
what a fascination metaphysical speculation has held
over the theologian, metaphysics must be taught in
order to cure him of the charm. It is not a mere
negative discovery. He is taught the difference be-
tween a perfect intellect and his own ; and human
knowledge has a perfection in its own sphere, when
it has found those dread limits which separate the eter-
nal light from our clearest mental vision. Mr. Locke
has said : —

"It is of great use to the sailor to know the length
of his line, though he cannot with it fathom all the
depths of the ocean. It is well to know that it is long
enough to reach the bottom at such places as are neces-
sary to direct his voyage, and caution him against run-
ning on shoals which may ruin him. Our business
here is not to know all things, but those which concern
our conduct."*

* Locke's Essay, Introduction, Sect. 6.




In the following translation I shall impose on myself
these rules : — First, to be as literal as possible, but uot
so literal as not to aim to give the parallel meaning ; for
the meaning of the Bible is the Bible. I shall endeavor
to give not only the meaning, but to preserve the poetic
and moral shading, so that a word or a metaphor may
give the same impression now as to the primitive read-
ers. This is my aim, though I am conscious that the
attainment is scarcely possible. I shall not shun the
old translation where I find nothing to alter, — and
some parts of it, I confess, are matchless and inimita-
ble, — as the description of spring, chap. ii. 8-13, and
of the lost interview, chap. v. 2-6. These have always
appeared to me, like Shakespeare's piece of prose in
Hamlet (Act II. Scene 2), — "This goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air," <fec. — to be magical out-
bursts of felicity, both in thought and language, which
all must admire, and none can hope to mend. I
shall abandon the method adopted since the days of


Lowth, of giving broken lines, because it offers a show
of poetry which the performance does not justify, and
therefore lays a trap for the reader's dissatisfaction.
These broken lines are like the forms in Egyptian
coffins, ghastly forms of a life that does not exist ; they
indicate neither measure nor rhyme, and they lure the
reader to expect either the one or the other. Only
think of these words passing for measured poetry ! —

" The Burden of Dumah.

" He calleth to me out of Seir, —

Watchman, what of the night,
"Watchman, what of the night ?
The watchman said.
The morning cometh, and also the night ;
If ye will inquire, inquire ye :
Return, come/'

Surely such poetry reminds one of Dr. Johnson's bur-
lesque line, —

" Lay your knife and your fork across your plate."

If the reader will count his fingers, he will find that
all his fingers and his thumbs on both hands exactly
correspond to the number of syllables in this beautiful
line, and in this respect it is as good as any line found
in Pope's Iliad or Milton's Paradise Lost ; nay, it is
better, for many a line in these great poets must be
saved from false quantity by an ecthlipsis, or synseresis,
or some other grammatical device ; and in this way I
have no doubt that President Buchanan's last message


can be turned into surprising poetry. But surely tlie
prophet intended no such device. The Hebrews had
the elements of poetry in them, but not ripened in its
modes, nor polished into its subsequent perfection.
Let us leave them in their native simplicity, and not
make them answerable for promises which they never
will fulfil, because in fact they never made them.

As to the notes, I am anxious to show that this Song
of Songs has a constant practical lesson, a lesson which
could be taught in its force and beauty in no other way.
I wish to show that a pious reader with a congenial taste
may find matter of improvement, not only from the
whole, but from the compact parts. In showing this, I
impose upon myself these restrictions : not to be wire-
drawing ; not to force out a latent meaning, — not to
torture language, or violate common sense ; not to fall
into the track of the Jewish or Christian mystics on the
one hand, and on the other to shun, as I would a syrtis,
the sensualism or the literalism of such writers as Gro-
tius, and Dr. Noyes of our own country. I blame not
these men ; they are scholars, and faithful perhaps to
their own light. But they could not understand such
a book as this. There was not a responsive fibre in
them.* The great difficulty is in the first step. Is

* There was a man in a neighboring town, some sixty years ago, a
very worthy citizen, who was very indifFei-ent to appropriating any money
for the improvement of sacred music. He was not more avaricious than
the rest of his neighbors. Everybody wondered at his reluctance. He at


the book a spiritual allegory ? If it is, the higher in-
terpretation follows of course. Now I do not pledge
myself to find an articulate meaning, in every part, to
the reader's satisfaction. But such is my aim. I am
more clear as to the general design of this song, than
I am as to its particular application ; but I am not
without hope, that, without borrowing the robe of Philo
or Origen, I may find, under the luxurious dress, an
obvious — at least a probable — application for every
period. These last, like branches of a noble tree, grow
out of the original design.



Let HIM greet me with a kiss from his sacred mouth,
"WHOSE love is sweeter than wine.

Let us pause a little on this important verse. It
opens the whole subject, it strikes the key-note, and
demands our attention. We must not stumble at the
threshold. It is to be understood by the help of the
emphasis, and under the shadow of that emphasis I

last told the secret. "I never yet," said he, "could see any use in culti-
vated music. All we want is a little joyful noise. For my part," added
he, " the falling of a shovel on the hearth, provided it rings well, or the
rattling of a pair of tongs in a brass kettle, is as good music as I ever
desire to hear."


have ventured to insert the word sacred, as indicating
the person and the nature of the sakitation. I suppose
the words to he spoken by the espoused one in the
verj spirit witli which Mary Magdalene addressed her
risen Saviour : "But Mary stood without at the sep-
ulclire weeping ; and as she wept, she stooped down
and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels
in white, sitting, the one at the head and the other
at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And
they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou ? She '
saith unto them. Because they have taken away my
Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.
And when she had thus said, she turned herself back,
and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Je-
sus. Jesus saith unto her. Woman, why weepest thou ?
Whom seekest thou ? She, supposing him to be the
gardener, saith unto him. Sir, if thou have borne him
hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will
take him away." (John xx. 11-15.) Now the latter
part of this speech has been greatly admired. Three
times the pronoun is used without a consciousness of
the absence of the antecedent. Her heart is so full
that she supposes every one must know who she means
by HIM. So, in the abrupt beginning of this book,
there is but one antecedent to which the pious mind
can recur. The sacred kiss can come from none but
the Heavenly Bridegroom. The ellipsis is impressive
and significant.


But wine and tokens of love fill the first strain of
the poem ! If we may suppose these words first to be
put into the mouth of some rustic beauty, espoused
to King Solomon, the ellipsis is natural and impres-
sive. To be taken from her native vale, and from an
idolatrous nation, and to be preferred by such a wise
and holy king, must have given an interest to any
salutation she might receive, and Solomon must have
filled her heart. Going up to the holy city must have
given a religious interest to her unusual nuptials. But
this was only a stepping-stone. God had a deeper de-
sign ; the fact was significant ; and the same God who
could make a dream or a name a symbol of prophecy
could make this union a foreshadowing of the union
of the Gentile church with its Redeemer.

But then the sensuality of wine and love ! Why
use these as images of the purest passion that can
actuate the heart ? Why dress piety in such wanton
robes ? Because in that age, and in all ages, certain
minds have sought such images to express the break-
ings of the heart. It has been delightful to some
nations, and to all ardent minds, to picture devotional
feeling in erotic poetry. If a colder criticism should
oppose it, it would be like quenching the conflagra-
tion of a burning city with a few flakes of falling
snow. It is not difficult to see whence this proclivity

First, the glowing mind, intense in its feeling, looks


round for adequate expressions, and finds them here.
Nature is too strong for art. We are told that, when
Madame Guyon wrote her ardent poetry, it was in
vain that the celebrated Bishop of Meaux exposed
her doctrines with all the powers of his wit, aided
by all the splendor of his eloquence. He only in-
creased the flame. His criticism probably never abated
the lusciousness of a single expression.

Secondly, the mystic feels a secret satisfaction in
triumphing over the tainting influence of the figures.
The unconsciousness (of which it is half conscious at
least) is pleasing. The rapid application of the figure
to the higher subject is a testimony to the mind of
its own purity.

Thirdly, the satisfaction of finding the resemblance
in the remote. The contrast is great. The rich treas-
ure is deeply hid.

Lastly, such similitudes take our whole nature with
them. They familiarize the mystic and ennoble the
familiar. They elevate the natural propensity into a
divine one. As the incarnation of Christ unites the
definiteness of a mortal conception with the sublimity
of a divine one, so this union takes the whole strength
of our minds and our hearts, and gives double ardor
to the compound passion. All the fire of a mortal
love joins with the purity of the divine to increase
the outflow of the soul. No wonder that such repre-
sentations should be so fascinating.


Perhaps the mortal passion itself has a deeper sig-
nification than at first appears. Perhaps the rant and
raptures of love were designed to show us how false
and fair our first idols, and how true the beauty to
which our disappointment turns us. Perhaps Otway
may teach us divinity : —

" O woman, lovely woman, nature made you
To temper man : we had been brutes without you ;
Angels are painted fair to look like you ;
There 's in you all that we believe of heaven.
Amazing brightness, purity, and truth,
Eternal joy, and everlasting love."

It teaches us, at least, that the passions justify them-
selves by borrowing and imputing perfection. So Vir-
gil : —

" Quis novus hie nostris successit sedibus hospes !
Quem sese ore ferens ! quara forti pectore, et armis !
Credo equidem, nee vana fides, genus esse deorum."

No one can read Rousseau's New Eloise without
thinking of the strength of the passion and the frailty
of its earthly foundation. A novelist always substi-
tutes the indefinite for the eternal. He conducts his
afflicted pair to social happine3s not terminated^ and
there leaves them ; just as a painter, not able to pic-
ture an infinite road, makes it wind round a hill, and
leaves the spectator's fancy to finish what the power
of his limited pencil could only begin.

The spirit of this paragraph is clear. It supposes a


mind so full of Christ that an elliptical pronoun sug-
gests him. It turns away from all earthly attractions
to seek some token of his love. Let him own me as
his, and fill my soul with his love, and it is all I ask.
My obedience is secured when I find my chief happi-
ness in his service ; when his love is sweeter than wine,
i. e. all sensual good. Under another figure the same
sentiment is expressed, chap. viii. 6 : '' Set me as a seal
upon thine heart, as a seal upon thy arm ; for love is
strong as death."

We may give a specimen how these sentiments might
appear in a modern dress : —

"^rom all the enchantments of time,

Where bitterness waits on desire,
Where pleasure is blended with crime,

And love is a vanishing fire,
I turn to the Bridegroom above.

Whose looks can such sweetness impart,
Whose kiss can our passions improve.

Because it encounters the heart.*

" I am weary with phantoms that fade, —

They cause me to weep and repine ;
I would be in His garments arrayed

Whose love is much better than vdne.
When the heart from its idols is loosed.

And the soul for its tenant makes room,
Then his name is like ointment eflfused.

Affording the richest perfume."

* " The hearts of princes kiss obedience." — King Henry VIII., Act 3,
Scene 1.


SoLOMiTis still speaks. (Verses 3, 4, 5, 6.)

Thy ointments have a delicate flavor ; thy name is hke oint-
ment effused. Therefore the virgins love thee. Draw me ;
we will gladly follow. The king has brought me into his con-
clave ; and there we will heartily rejoice. We will praise his
love more than wine. The good love thee. I am dark, but
fair ; dark like the tents of Kedar ; fair like the curtains of
Solomon. O daughter of Jerusalem, — do not scorn me be-
cause I am dark ; 't is my native sun. My native people
were angry with me; they appointed me to keep the vine-
yards ; but while I kept their vineyards, I lost my own, —
i. e. my heart.

In the first place, let iis regard the historical mean-
ing. It is the address of a rustic girl to a refined king.
She is a fair brunette, — just what we should expect
from an Arab tribe. She has ointments preparatory
to her exaltation ; just as Esther was purified to go in
to the king ; " for so were the days of their purification
accomplished, to wit, six months with oil of myrrh, and
six months with sweet odors and with other things for
the purification of the women." (Esther ii. 12.) Let
us suppose, then. King Solomon to have had a mingled
motive in espousing this Sheik's daughter, — partly the
extension of true religion, partly empire, and partly
personal glory ; she has native charms and a wild cul-
tivation. Suppose he affords her the sweet-scented
unguents, and prepares her for his own seraglio.
What a perfect fact to shadow out a higher union in


the admission of the Gentile Church, the gratitude
and love which would glow in her heart, and the
purer piety which would at once pave the way and
follow that event. It was not merely a figure ; it was
partly a specimen.

And then the wisdom behind the mortal council,
and overruling the fact to its own designs ! This was
charming to a Hebrew mind. It is no more than what
the poet has said : —

" There 's a Divinity that shapes our ends
Rough-hew them how we will/'

This, then, is the unforced lesson, certainly unforced
when you have got over the difficulty of admitting the
allegory. I merely hint.

" let me have conscious communion with God ; "
or, to translate it into a proposition : " It is a privilege
to feel in my heart that he loves me, for then I shall
love him ; " or, to reverse the proposition : " When I
feel that I love him, I know that he loves me."

And for tliis. Divine attraction is necessary (see fourth
verse); we should pray for it. This simple passage
tells the great secret; how to get a will for virtue, — a
question which has always perplexed the sensual man.
It is by prevenient grace. '' Draw me ; we will run
after thee." "No man can come to me, except the
"Slather which hath sent me draw him." (John vi. 44.)

Now, I ask, admitting the allegory running through


the poem (and unless you do admit it you plunge from
the sublime mountain into the muddy ditch that stag-
nates at its base), is this meaning arbitrary ? Is it un-
natural ? Is it forced ? Is it not all but necessary ?

CHAP. I. 7-17.


Tell me, O beloved one, where thou feedest thy flocks ; where
is thy noontide shade. Why should I wander among other


If you know not, O thou most beautiful of women, trace
the footsteps ; feed thy kids near the shepherds' tents. I com-
pare you, O my loved one, to the horses of Pharaoh's char-
iots. How graceful are thy cheeks among thy chains, thy
neck with its necklace! We have prepared for you golden
collars with silver stars.


While the king sits in his circle, my nard diffuses its odor.
A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me ; he shall rest in my
inmost heart. A cluster of copher is my beloved to me in the
gardens of Engedi.


O thou art fair, my love, thou art very fair, with eyes look-
ing the dove. Yes, thou art beautiful, divinely beautiful ; while
our nuptial couch is the rural grove. The cedar-trees are the
only beams to our house, — our only rafters are the branches
over us.


Here, I think, we have indications of the historico-
literal and the mystico-spiritual. It is impossible to
be sure as to the meaning of such imperfect hints ;
for the whole poem is a succession of hints with a
chasm of ellipsis between. The first speech, — " Tell
me, thou loved One! where thou feedest thy flock,"
&c., — may be a natural mistake of the rural lass on
her first union with the king, or it may be the king
went into her country to rusticate, or it may be an
allegorical expression by which she signifies that the
king is a shepherd and his kingdom is a flock. Wliat-
ever it be, it is a wish for love and communion ; and
the next verses are the language of encouragement
from a superior : " You say you are black, and yet
you hope you are fair. I compare you to the most
polished and precious objects, — to Pharaoh's chariot.
I will load you with every ornament," &c., &c.

But what is the higher meaning ? Sure, it is obvi-
ous. Christ has selected human nature from its state
of degradation and corruption, and he sees every beauty
in it through the comeliness he puts upon it. As there
is something remarkably beautiful in supposing a re-
fined king, like Solomon, dwelling in such a house as
described in 1 Kings vii., going into the country, dwell-
ing in a tent, with the cedar-trees murmuring over
him ; so when the greater than Solomon condescends
to adopt the Gentile sinners, beautify their hearts, and
seeing the beauty that he has imparted, the parallel is


complete. Then, too, the humblest scenes are beau-
tiful with the presence of Christ.

CHAP. II. 1-7.

I am but a wild flower of the field, a lilj of the valley.

Yes, but as the lily among the briers, so is my beloved
among other women.


As the apple-tree among the woodland shades, so is my be-
loved among the youth ; under his shade I sat and still de-
sire to sit, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He led me
to the nuptial room ; his banner over me was — Love. I faint
— I languish in love. Restore me with grape-cakes ; re-
cover me with apples. His left hand is under my head ; his
right enfolds me. daughters of Jerusalem, I adjure you by
the roes and gazelles of the country, that you disturb not
my loved One, nor recall him to the city until he chooses.

This whole speech belongs to the bride, as we have
given it. She is showing that she knows how to ap-
preciate her lover-king as well as her rivals of the
city. It is impossible to translate the fourth verse by
a mere translation. I think the house of wine was the
nuptial-room, and the banner was the flag intended for
the caravan which was to carry her up to Jerusalem.
So that the sentiment in the historical part is : " He has


already adopted me. I see the scene; the nuptial ban-
quet is prepared ; the banner waves ; love floats in its
folds, and we are just ready to depart. He will own
me in Jerusalem, as well as in my native groves. But
amid such delightful scenes, I have no haste to go.
I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes and
hinds of my native fields," &c., &c. How beautiful
the objects by which she swears ! the semi-paganism of
the oath, too, is extremely natural. She sheds one tear
over her native animals, though she triumphs in go-
ing. Longinus has praised the oath of Demosthenes,
when he swore by those that fell at Marathon ; but
this adjuration is more beautiful. It is exactly suit-
able to the rustic nymph in her condition, who shows
her love for what she chooses by her regrets for what
she leaves.

Such is the historical part. But what could you do
with it applied to the higher purpose ? And remember
you are not to copy Origen, nor to be a reckless mystic.
It seems to me, if it is really an allegory, if the book
has a latent application, the word is nigh thee, in thy
heart and in thy mouth. The design is very much
the same as that of the parable of the prodigal son and
his envious brother. Then the mingled joy and humil-
ity of the bride, — how parallel to a lost soul returning
to Grod ! The genius of the Gospel, that salvation is
by grace, was never better illustrated than when salva-
tion was sent to the pagan nations. They were sunk


ill corruption ; the Jews called them dogs, exiles,
wretches, babes, and things which were not, that is, non-
entities in religion, and yet the purest manifestation
of religion was sent to them. The murmuring of
the oldest son, in the parable before alluded to (Luke
xvii.), shows how long the self-righteous objection
lingered even in a sober mind.

If I were discoursing on the gracious spirit, on hu-
mility, on a humble trust, on the hope of a soul sealed
to its Saviour, I should not hesitate to quote the speech
of the bride : " I am but a wild flower of the field." I
am sorry in this translation to lose the specific definite-
ness of the original ; but I know not any plant which
would produce the instantaneous recognition in the
English reader's mind necessary to the beauty and
effect of the original. I might have said, I am a wild
rose, — I am a harebell, — I am a sprig of white-
weed ; but these would be false translations, and would
not produce the intended efiect. I am forced to lose
much in being general. Let the reader imagine any
late, unusual, modestly beautiful, or rustic flower of a
native land, like the shamrock to the Irish or the na-
tive thistle to the Scotch, and use it for the emblem.

CHAP. II. 8-17.

Hark, — it is the voice of my beloved ; it is he ; he comes ;
he comes leaping on the mountains, — bounding over the hills.


My beloved is like a hart or a wild-goat. Lo ! lie is there ;
standing behind our wall, showing himself through our win-
dows, peeping through the wicker-work. My beloved spake
and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come
away. For lo ! the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth ; the time of the singing of
the 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
and the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my
fair one, and come away.

We may suppose some time to have elapsed between
the utterance of the last paragraph and the occasion of
this. The bride had gone up to Jerusalem, and after
a stay there had gone back to the country, and was to
remain there until the season came of her husband's
rustication, which would naturally be in the spring. In

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Online LibraryLeonard WithingtonSolomon's song: translated and explained, in three parts → online text (page 14 of 20)