Drunk with Love

The Song of Songs: A New Translation

with an Introduction and Commentary by Ariel Bloch, by Chana Bloch, afterword by Robert Alter
Random House, 253 pp., $27.50

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine” is the famous opening of the Song of Songs in the King James Version of the Bible. “Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses!” is Ariel and Chana Bloch’s rather more imperative translation. Either way, we are plunged into a breathlessly seductive love scene. The remainder of this short biblical book is essentially an erotic dialogue between lovers who alternately yearn for, recall, invite, and celebrate each other’s embraces in language rich with metaphors which are both explicit and cryptic, and which have generated continuing scholarly disputes over their meaning.

The poem’s setting is a world of fertile nature into which the lovers seem to blend:

Like a lily in a field
of thistles,
such is my love
among the young women.

And my beloved among the young men
is a branching apricot tree in the wood.
In that shade I have often lingered,
tasting the fruit. (2:2-3)

Or it is the sumptuous fantasied setting of a royal court that is interchangeable with a male body:

His arm a golden scepter with gems of topaz,
his loins the ivory of thrones
inlaid with sapphire. (5:14)

The man is sometimes a shepherd, sometimes “my king,” while the woman is at times an enclosed garden, at times a princess, at times “my myrrh and my spices,…the milk and the wine.” (5:1) The lovers are sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by friends. Neither is named, although the woman is once referred to as “the Shulamite,” which might mean either “woman from Jerusalem” or “woman of peace,” and is taken by some commentators to mean “woman from Shunem,” which is the birthplace of the biblical Abishag, a woman famous for her beauty.

The man at one moment seems to be playing the part of King Solomon, and at another to be scorning Solomon’s wealth as inferior to the “vineyard” of his beloved’s body. He calls her “my sister, my bride,” although it is clear that they are neither siblings nor married; they call each other “beloved” and “friend”; they compare each other to doves, deer, a mare, a wild stag. An elliptical refrain which occurs for the first time during a scene of lovemaking, “Now he has brought me to the house of wine/and his flag over me is love” (2:4), reinforces the imagery of love as belonging to a fruitful natural world:

Daughters of Jerusalem, swear to me
by the gazelles, by the deer in the field,
that you will never awaken love
until it is ripe. (2:7, 3:5)

Like its images, the origins of this poem remain mysterious. Traditionally attributed to King Solomon, its author or authors are unknown. Scholars have dated it anywhere between the tenth and the second century BCE. Written in a Hebrew partially tinted by Aramaic—which according to the Blochs argues for a date around the …

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Letters

The Mysterious ‘Song’ March 5, 1998