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Elaine T. James

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2020

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The Poetry of Beauty: What Does it Mean to See the Beloved?

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https://thetorah.com/article/the-poetry-of-beauty-what-does-it-mean-to-see-the-beloved

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Elaine T. James

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The Poetry of Beauty: What Does it Mean to See the Beloved?

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TheTorah.com

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2020

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https://thetorah.com/article/the-poetry-of-beauty-what-does-it-mean-to-see-the-beloved

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Symposium

Song of Songs

The Poetry of Beauty: What Does it Mean to See the Beloved?

Three descriptive poems in the Song of Songs wrestle with the experience of being in the beloved’s presence. In each case, the woman’s body is described using layered landscape imagery and complex, overlapping angles of vision. These poems ask us to consider what it means to see.

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The Poetry of Beauty: What Does it Mean to See the Beloved?

The Lovers of Vence (Les Amoureux de Vence), Marc Chagall, 1957. Sotheby's

Many readers have found in the Song of Songs an allegory for divine love. More recent approaches have acknowledged how this collection of poems celebrates human love. On either reading, it is love itself—and the desire for the beloved other—that takes center stage. Running through the center of the Song like a backbone, three of the song’s major poems describe and celebrate the body of the woman: Song 4:1–7; 6:4–7; and 7:2–7. Since the Song is neither linear nor narrative, we can read these descriptive poems sequentially, despite the fact that they appear in different chapters.

Two Questions About Beauty

In these poems that describe the beauty of the beloved, the first two begin with the face and head and move down the body. The final description moves in the opposite direction, from the feet up the middle of the body to the top of the head. In each case, the woman’s body is described in terms of the landscape of ancient Israel. But they do not create one static “map.” Instead, the angle of vision changes over the sequence of poems.

This suggests that the poems themselves are engaged in two aesthetic questions, which are really two sides of the same coin: 1. How is it possible to describe the experience of being in the presence of a beloved? 2. What does it mean to see?

The First Two Descriptive Poems: Viewing in Part

A question underlies the first two descriptive poems: How is it possible to describe the experience of being in the presence of a beloved? These poems share much in common, including overlapping language and imagery: In both, her hair is like a flock of goats (4:1; 6:5); her teeth like a flock coming up from the wash, all of them bearing twins (4:2; 6:6); her cheek is a slice of pomegranate behind the veil (4:3; 6:7). And each description presents the beloved in fragmentary form. They begin with the head but break off at the bust. In both of these poems, there is a tension between the partialness of the description and the sense of the wholeness of the beloved.

The First Descriptive Poem (Song 4:1-7)

Here is the first descriptive poem. Note how it begins at the head and ends at the chest:

הִנָּךְ יָפָה רַעְיָתִי
הִנָּךְ יָפָה
עֵינַיִךְ יוֹנִים
מִבַּעַד לְצַמָּתֵךְ
שַׂעְרֵךְ כְּעֵדֶר הָעִזִּים
שֶׁגָּלְשׁוּ מֵהַר גִּלְעָד.
שִׁנַּיִךְ כְּעֵדֶר הַקְּצוּבוֹת
שֶׁעָלוּ מִן הָרַחְצָה
שֶׁכֻּלָּם מַתְאִימוֹת
וְשַׁכֻּלָה אֵין בָּהֶם.
כְּחוּט הַשָּׁנִי שִׂפְתֹתַיִךְ
וּמִדְבָּרֵיךְ נָאוֶה
כְּפֶלַח הָרִמּוֹן רַקָּתֵךְ
מִבַּעַד לְצַמָּתֵךְ.
כְּמִגְדַּל דָּוִיד צַוָּארֵךְ
בָּנוּי לְתַלְפִּיּוֹת
אֶלֶף הַמָּגֵן תָּלוּי עָלָיו
כֹּל שִׁלְטֵי הַגִּבּוֹרִים.
שְׁנֵי שָׁדַיִךְ כִּשְׁנֵי עֳפָרִים
תְּאוֹמֵי צְבִיָּה
הָרוֹעִים בַּשּׁוֹשַׁנִּים.
עַד שֶׁיָּפוּחַ הַיּוֹם
וְנָסוּ הַצְּלָלִים
אֵלֶךְ לִי אֶל הַר הַמּוֹר
וְאֶל גִּבְעַת הַלְּבוֹנָה.
כֻּלָּךְ יָפָה רַעְיָתִי
וּמוּם אֵין בָּךְ. (שה"ש ד:א-ז)
Ah, you are beautiful, my love.
Ah, you are beautiful.
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats
moving down from Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shearlings
coming up from the wash:
All of them twins,
no blemish is in them.
Your lips are like a scarlet thread
and your speech is lovely.
Your cheek is like a slice of pomegranate
behind your veil.
Your neck like the tower of David
Built in courses.
A thousand shields are hung upon it,
all the shields of warriors.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
which pastures among the lilies.
Until the day breaks
and the shadows flee
I will go to the mount of myrrh
and the hill of frankincense.
All of you is beautiful, my friend;
There is no flaw in you. (Song 4:1-7)[2]

After the description of the beloved’s face, neck, and breasts, the description of the body ends, and the poet makes general statements about her total beauty: “All of you is beautiful… there is no flaw in you.”

The Second Descriptive Poem (Song 6:4–7)

The Song’s second descriptive poem employs many of the motifs of the first poem, and it too is a partial description:

יָפָה אַתְּ רַעְיָתִי כְּתִרְצָה
נָאוָה כִּירוּשָׁלָ‍ִם
אֲיֻמָּה כַּנִּדְגָּלוֹת.
הָסֵבִּי עֵינַיִךְ מִנֶּגְדִּי
שֶׁהֵם הִרְהִיבֻנִי
שַׂעְרֵךְ כְּעֵדֶר הָעִזִּים
שֶׁגָּלְשׁוּ מִן הַגִּלְעָד.
שִׁנַּיִךְ כְּעֵדֶר הָרְחֵלִים
שֶׁעָלוּ מִן הָרַחְצָה
שֶׁכֻּלָּם מַתְאִימוֹת
וְשַׁכֻּלָה אֵין בָּהֶם.
כְּפֶלַח הָרִמּוֹן רַקָּתֵךְ
מִבַּעַד לְצַמָּתֵךְ. (שה"ש ו:ד-ז)
You are beautiful, my friend, as Tirzah,
lovely as Jerusalem,
awesome as an army procession.
Turn your eyes from me
for they terrify me.
Your hair is like a flock of goats
streaming down from Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of ewes
which come up from the wash.
All of them bear twins;
none of them is bereaved.
Like a slice of pomegranate is your cheek
behind your veil. (Song 6:4-7)

In both of these poems, the beloved is described only in part. As can be seen here, the description of the beloved uses landscape terms: doves, goats, gazelles, and pomegranates are only part of the vibrant landscape elements that saturate the Song. In addition, the Song is filled with place names like Gilead, Tirzah, Jerusalem, and Lebanon. So, the Song must be understood in terms of its local agrarian landscape, which presents a deep metaphor for the beloved, in which the woman is compared to the land. This localization, though, is fragmentary. The “map” is not complete. We see the landscape and the beloved only in part.

The Woman at the Window

The partialness of these two initial descriptions recalls the artistic convention of the “woman at the window.” This is a common motif in early first-millennium ivory carvings from the ancient Near East: a woman’s face is framed as through a window, surrounded by architectural features.[3] Because she is looking out from a closed architectural space, what is emphasized is that the woman is seen only in part. This creates the sense of physical separation—she is desired, but inaccessible.

Despite the partiality of the descriptions, each is followed with an affirmation of the lover’s totality: “all of you is beautiful, my darling / There is no flaw in you!” (Song 4:7); “one she is, my dove, my complete one” (Song 6:9). The woman’s body is never fully known to the man (or the audience) in the first two descriptive poems. The claim that “all of you” is beautiful is thus in tension with content of the poem—as though the beauty which has provoked the poetic response cannot be fully captured by the poet, whose descriptions come up short.

The descriptions themselves, in other words, present us with a problem: how is it possible to describe the experience of being in the beloved’s presence? How can art account for beauty? To begin with, we might simply note that one description is not enough. The poet’s multiple renderings of the beloved suggest that it is not possible to account for the other—whether a landscape, or a person—with a single glance. To truly see another requires patient and attentive regard.

The Third Descriptive Poem: Innovations in Perspective

Even two poems are not enough, though. The third descriptive poem builds on the vision that has begun to take shape in chapters 4 and 6. Here, the description is both far more intimate, and it is also more panoramic. As I will suggest in what follows, this third description is engaged with the second question: What does it mean to see? Here is the third descriptive poem:

מַה יָּפוּ פְעָמַיִךְ בַּנְּעָלִים
בַּת נָדִיב
חַמּוּקֵי יְרֵכַיִךְ כְּמוֹ חֲלָאִים
מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵי אָמָּן.
שָׁרְרֵךְ אַגַּן הַסַּהַר
אַל יֶחְסַר הַמָּזֶג
בִּטְנֵךְ עֲרֵמַת חִטִּים
סוּגָה בַּשּׁוֹשַׁנִּים.
שְׁנֵי שָׁדַיִךְ כִּשְׁנֵי עֳפָרִים
תָּאֳמֵי צְבִיָּה.
צַוָּארֵךְ כְּמִגְדַּל הַשֵּׁן
עֵינַיִךְ בְּרֵכוֹת בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן
עַל שַׁעַר בַּת רַבִּים
אַפֵּךְ כְּמִגְדַּל הַלְּבָנוֹן
צוֹפֶה פְּנֵי דַמָּשֶׂק.
רֹאשֵׁךְ עָלַיִךְ כַּכַּרְמֶל
וְדַלַּת רֹאשֵׁךְ כָּאַרְגָּמָן
מֶלֶךְ אָסוּר בָּרְהָטִים.
מַה יָּפִית וּמַה נָּעַמְתְּ
אַהֲבָה בַּתַּעֲנוּגִים. (שה"ש ז:ב-ז)
How lovely are your feet in sandals,
O daughter of nobles!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
the work of a master’s hand.
Your navel is like a round goblet—
Let mixed wine not be lacking!—
Your belly like a heap of wheat
hedged about with lilies.
Your breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle.
Your neck is like a tower of ivory;
Your eyes like pools in Heshbon
by the gate of Bath-Rabbim.
Your nose is like the Lebanon tower
that faces toward Damascus.
Your head upon you is like crimson wool,
the locks of your head are like purple—
A king is held captive in the tresses.
How fair you are, how beautiful!
O Love, with all its rapture! (Song 7:2-7)

Seeing from the Ground Up

This description includes several innovations in perspective. First, it begins not with the head, but with the feet: “How lovely are your feet in sandals, / O daughter of nobles!” This implies, at the outset, that we have broken out of the frame of the first two descriptions. Already, the vision that is implied is far more complete. This sense continues as the description moves to parts of the body that were previously hidden: thighs, navel, and belly. Here, instead of a distant view of someone who can be glimpsed only as through a window, we see details of the woman’s body in intimate proximity.

Layering Craftsmanship with Landscape

A second innovation in perspective can be seen in the way this description layers elements of fine craftsmanship onto the agrarian landscape imagery. For example: “Your rounded thighs are like jewels, / The work of a master’s hand.” The details of jewelry, goblet, and turned bowl, all suggest products of fine craftsmanship. They are not merely landscape elements, but artful ones, created by human skill.[4] This complicates the woman-as-landscape view, and it draws on a fuller sense of ancient lifeways. Along with the more intimate view, they suggest that the distinction between nature and culture is blurred if not impossible. As the poet seeks a fuller description of the beloved, in other words, a more complex set of images is sought.

Multisensory Description and Intimacy

A third innovation in perspective can be seen in the way this third description layers onto the visual dimension the perceptions of other senses: “Your navel[5] is like a round goblet— / Let mixed wine not be lacking!” The heap of wheat, too, suggests agricultural fullness as well as the future potential of food. (This attention to the olfactory and gustatory dimensions is most fully on display in Song 4:12-15, where she is described as a garden redolent with spices). Taste is the most intimate perception—it requires touch and smell, and so it can only be experienced through physical immediacy.

Similarly, the hair here is not seen as a distant surface of flowing hair (like goats down a hillside); rather, the hair holds the king captive, suggesting that it is tactile and immediate. The sensory elaboration of this description requires the presence of the beloved—who is tasted and touched, and not just seen from a distance. Taken together, these changes in perspective in the third poem draw us more fully into the intimate appreciation of the beloved’s presence.

Grandeur and a Panoramic Perspective

As the description continues to move up the woman’s body, it becomes increasingly clear that the perspective in the third description is not just more intimate. It is also more panoramic. If in the previous descriptions there were hints of topographical comparisons, here the greatest cluster of toponyms in the entire book occurs:

צַוָּארֵךְ כְּמִגְדַּל הַשֵּׁן
עֵינַיִךְ בְּרֵכוֹת בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן
עַל שַׁעַר בַּת רַבִּים
אַפֵּךְ כְּמִגְדַּל הַלְּבָנוֹן
צוֹפֶה פְּנֵי דַמָּשֶׂק.
Your neck is like a tower of ivory;
Your eyes like pools in Heshbon
by the gate of Bath-Rabbim.
Your nose is like the Lebanon tower
that faces toward Damascus. (v. 5)

The distant toponyms give this poem a more sweeping quality. Heshbon, Lebanon, and Damascus all gesture to places farther afield, and seeing them in a single plane of vision requires an imaginative stance high above the ground. The bird’s-eye view that is required for such a view might be taken for granted by contemporary readers, who are used to seeing from the perspective of an airplane, or a drone, or Google Maps. But such a view is, in the ancient world, an imagined one.

That the eyes are “pools” further develops this bird’s-eye view. This perhaps plays on the fact that “eye” and “spring” are homonyms in Hebrew (ʿayin), suggesting their shared liquidity and sparkle. It is the watery surface of the pools that are evoked here, seen from above or afar, glinting and reflecting the light. These dual elements—the distant toponyms and the phenomenologically rich descriptions—charge the audience to imagine the utmost reaches of the conceptualized landscape of ancient Israel, a view made possible by an imagined stance high above the ground.

Inaccessibility: The Hiddenness of Lovers

At the same time as the vision becomes more panoramic, it also becomes more cryptic. We do not know, for example, what Bath-rabbim is.[6] And the passage is also filled with rare vocabulary. No less than five otherwise unknown words or forms occur in this passage.[7] This heightens the sense that the vision of the woman here is rarified, or secret. It is a lover’s language, that simultaneously invites us in, and keeps us out. While the speaker describer her in greater detail, she remains undisclosed.

What Does it Mean to See?

Taken together, these three poems describing the lover’s beauty wrestle with two aesthetic questions: How is it possible to describe the experience of being in the presence of a beloved? And, What does it mean to see?

Over the course of the three poems, the descriptions are specified, more detailed, and also more refined. If the first two poems describe the beloved as inaccessible and distant, the third poem overcomes the obstacles and brings the lover into a more realized presence. The third poem does this through a series of poetic strategies that conflate the angles of description. We see with a vision that is both panoramic, and intimately detailed; she is both a landscape, and a product of artisans; our perspective is primarily visual but is also layered with multiple sense perceptions that conjure the complex and intimate presence of the beloved.

Like the landscape to which she is compared, the woman’s wholeness is elusive. It can’t be taken in at a single glance, “mastered” by the eye of the viewer, or accounted for in every detail. Her dynamism is the dynamism of a living organism, full of insurmountable complexity. The poet’s process of description is a realization of the inevitable hermeneutical circle of lovers—the account of beauty arises from intimacy and from affection.

The three descriptive poems thus offer a way of thinking about the nature of aesthetics. The poem is not only a representation of beauty, it is an attempt to wrestle with the experience of being in the presence of the desired other. The poem is not only the representation of a gaze, it is an attempt to consider what it means to see in the first place. The way the poems present a developing vision of the beloved models a kind of cultivation of the gaze, which is committed to an ethically laden vision that sees the other as a beloved, with increasing fullness and complexity. [8]

Published

April 2, 2020

|

Last Updated

May 23, 2020

Footnotes

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Dr. Elaine T. James is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. Her research interests are in biblical Hebrew poetry, the idea of art in the ancient world, and hermeneutical issues of land and gender. She is the author of Landscapes of the Song of Songs: Poetry and Place (Oxford University Press, 2017), and co-editor of Biblical Poetry and the Art of Close Reading with J. Blake Couey (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and is currently completing a handbook on Biblical poetry for Oxford University Press. She holds the Ph.D. in Old Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary.