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But the book is objected to as being indelicate in its expressions. To this we reply:
1. That much of this indelicacy is the fault of the translators, and not of the original poem. No one quality of the poem will more forcibly strike a reader of the original, who is capable of entering into the spirit of the age in which it was written, than the delicacy, the purity, and the propriety of its language. Our English translators were theologians and not poets; they had not sufficient confidence in their knowledge of Hebrew, or did not feel their position sufficiently secure, to preserve them from a too implicit reliance on preceding translators, who had not only been as unpoetical as themselves, but most of them were monks and recluses, whose rinds too often are but a cage
unclean and hateful bird. Of the fact here stated, every reader will be convinced who will compare our English translation with the Hebrew original, or with any good modern translation, like that of Herder, De Wette, or Rosenmüller.
2. Some of the alleged "indelicacy arises from mistaking descriptions of the dress for descriptions of the naked person. Chap. 5: 10-16, is often supposed to be a description of the naked person, than which nothing can be more absurd or less in accordance with the language itself. Those parts of the person which custom exposes to view are indeed described ; but as to those parts which custom conceals, it is the dress and not the skin which is described; for example : His head is as the most fine gold, and his hair is curled and as black as the raven. What is this but the turban, gold-colored or ornamented with gold, and the raven black ringlets appearing below it? How else could his head be yellow and his hair black? unless, indeed, he were a bald-headed mulatto, and that surely would be a curious subject for amorous eulogy, besides being directly contrary to the context; for his complexion is just before described as white and ruddy, v. 10.
Again, v. 14: His body is as white ivory girded with sapphires. How admirably this corresponds with the snow-white robe and the girdle set full of jewels, as we see it in Sir Robert Kerr Porter's portrait of the late King of Persia ! But what is there, I pray you, on the naked body that looks like a girdle of sapphires ? Do you suppose the loved one is eulogized for having the disease called the shingles ?
Again, chap. 7: 2, is a beautiful description of the front clasp of the female dress, which was usually of gold, and set with rubies and other brilliants. Nothing is more common among the Oriental poets than the comparing rubies with wine and wine with rubies ; but how utterly absurd if the naked body is supposed to be described! So also the fawn-colored robe and the
snow-white girdle are represented by the next figure ; but what is there on the naked body to correspond to it?
3. Some of the supposed indelicacy arises from a change of manners; see 5: 5, 7: 3. There is certainly no indelicacy in describing those parts of the person which are always exposed to view, as the face and hands. All the monuments and pictures of ancient Egypt show us that the ancient Oriental ladies dressed so as fully to expose the bosom, and of course there could have been no indelicacy in alluding to, or describing it.
In regard to the use of certain words, every generation changes in its views of delicacy and propriety. The English language of the time of Elizabeth and of the present age is a sufficient illustration of this. In a poem nearly three thousand years old we may well expect some deviation from our present views of propriety in respect to the use of words, though there are not more in the Song of Solomon, properly translated, than in Hesiod' or Homer, or even in Spenser and Shakspeare. The fact, too, that men and women live separately in the Oriental world, makes a great difference in respect to the use of words.
Some object to the poem as a part of the Scriptural canon because, as they allege, it is a description of physical love, and as such, unworthy a place among the sacred books.
Allowing it to be a description of physical love, I presume no one acquainted with the original will deny that it is wedded love; a chaste and legitimate affection. Why should a passion so strong, so universal, so essential to the happiness—to the very existence of the human race, be denied a place in a revelation from God to man? As a matter of fact, has it not a place in every part of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation? God is the author of the human constitution as well as of the Bible; and He has in all respects adapted his revelation to the nature of the beings for whom it was designed. It would be strange indeed, if one of the most important and never absent phenomena in the moral and physical constitution of man should never be noticed in a revelation to him from his Creator. If the viciousness and licentiousness of men have loaded this subject with vile and filthy associations in vile and filthy minds, this is not the fault of God or of his Revelation. The vine will not be destroyed, nor the grapes annihilated, because wicked men make themselves beasts with wine.
But this is an Oriental book, written in an Oriental land, by an Oriental author, and intended in the first instance for the use of an Oriental people ; and it is to be interpreted by their manners and their rules of composition, and not by ours. Now it is the universal custom in the Oriental world, and always has been from time immemorial, to represent spiritual subjects under this peculiar figure. The figure is appropriated to such subjects. In the
Bible itself, where the words of this class are used once in the literal sense, they are used ten times in the metaphorical sense ; so that in fact, the metaphorical instead of the literal becomes the most obvious sense, not only in the Bible, but in all Oriental literature. In respect to the Bible, any one can satisfy himself of this fact, by taking a Concordance, and tracing the use of the words love, marriage, adultery, fornication, whoredom, and the like. The figure is appropriated equally both in the Old Testament and the New. In addition to the chapters already referred to, and which in the places where they occur are plainly declared to be allegorical, examine also the following-Isa. 54: 5. 62:5. Jerem. 2: 2. Ezek. 16:8. Matt. 9: 15. John 3:29. 2 Cor. 11:2. Eph. 5:23, 31. Rev. 19; 7. 21 : 2. Compare also the very elaborate and satisfactory investigation by Rosenmüller in the volume above quoted, p. 265-68.
But we are not shut up to the Bible for the appropriation of this figure. Sir William Jones, in his Commentaries on Asiatic Poetry, P. III., c. 9, in the Asiatic Researches, vol. III., p. 353 (5th edition, p. 165), and in the quarto edition of his collected works, vol. I., p. 445, has given numberless examples from all the most celebrated Asiatic poets. There is a remarkable example of an Oriental poem of this kind, with an Oriental commentary, in my notes to Lowth's Lectures on Hebrew Poetry, p. 439-40, Andover edition. Adam Clarke, in his Commentary on Solomon's Song, has given two very striking instances of the same kind, namely—the Chaldee Targum on Canticles, and the Gitagorinda, a sacred poem of the Hindoos. Professor Stuart has given other examples, more recently brought to light, in his late work on the Old Testament,
It is certainly proper to estimate the literary character of a work by the habits of judging on such subjects, which prevailed at the time, and among the people with whom the work originated. Judging by this rule, we should at once decide that the Song of Solomon is an allegory; and this has been the uniform judgment of the most skilful Oriental scholars, both of those who have admitted its inspiration, as Lowth, and those who have considered it merely a human composition, as Rosenmüller. The discussion of this subject by Rosenmüller, in his Scholia already referred to, is one of the most candid, thorough-going, and perfectly convincing that I have ever read. A mere sense of literary justice, without any regard to the book as an inspired writing, compels this learned but rationalizing critic to decide in favor of the allegorical interpretation as the only possible one.
In this sense the Jewish writers, from the earliest times, have always understood it, and they surely ought to be allowed to know something of their own literature. Without this interpretation, it is bardly possible that, with their views, they would have received it into the sacred canon.
Let the reader examine the Chaldee Targum, or paraphrase, already referred to, translated by Adam Clarke, and inserted in his commentary. This paraphrase was made some centuries before the time of Christ, and probably be. fore the traditionary interpretation from the author himself could have been entirely lost. In the same sense it is understood by Aben Ezra, Jarchi, and other distinguished Jewish writers, as well as by almost every one of the earlier Christian writers. Here Jewish tradition, and Christian tradition, and, we have reason to believe, the tradition from the author himself, are perfectly coincident.
Finding, therefore, this oriental poem in an oriental collection of religious books, and attended with so unbroken a tradition in respect to its meaning, all the presumption is wholly in favor of the allegorical interpretation.
Let us now examine the work itself, and see whether its phenomena correspond to this presumption.
1. The names of the two principal characters, namely, Shelomoh and Shulamith, are in the original quite as significant as John Bunyan's Christian and Christiana, Obstinate and Pliable, Faithful and Hopeful, &c.
2. The sudden changes from the singular to the plural number in the part of the dialogue sustained by Shulamith, indicate that her name is to be taken in a collective sense. Draw ME, we will run after thee. The king hath brought me into his chambers; WE will be glad, etc., 1: 4, and many other places.
3. Shulamith is put in situations and made to utter expressions, which, if literally understood, are so entirely abhorrent to Oriental manners, that no sane writer, certainly no writer so skilful as the author of this poem shows himself to be, would ever put into a literal love song; though they are all very beautiful and appropriate when understood allegorically. Such are 3:1–4. 5:7. 8:1, 2. Such scenes and expressions are not uncommon in the allegorical poetry of the East, but in their literal amatory songs they can never occur. Literally understood, they would doom their heroines to everlasting infamy, and certainly no poet ever thus treats his favorites.
4. The entire absence of everything like jealousy, in situations where that passion must appear in a literal love song, is proof of the allegorical character of the piece. See 1:4,5:1, 6:8, 9.
5. The dreamy and fanciful, and even impossible character of many of the scenes, shows that they cannot be understood literally.
2: 14-16. Shulamith is in the cleft of the rocks, in the concealments of the precipices, and Shelomoh wishes to see her and hear her speak. He is in the garden at night, and she tells him to catch the jackalls that are destroying the vines.
She sees him feeding his flocks in a distant field of anemones. She sees him
beyond the mountains which separate them; and calls upon him to leap over them like the gazelle and the fleeting fawn, to rejoin her at evening. All these things occur together at the same time
4:8, Shelomoh calls upon Shulamith to go with him to the snowy peaks of Lebanon and Hermon, among the lions' dens and the leopards' lairs, and enjoy the fine prospect over the plains of Damascus.
Numerous impossibilities of this kind will occur to every intelligent reader of the poem.
There are people who take up Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and read it all through as a delightful story, without once suspecting that it is an allegory, who scarcely allow themselves to suspect that it is not all literally true, and who would think rather meanly of so extensive a traveller as Mr. Buckingham, if he had never seen the Hill Difficulty, or the Delectable Mountains,—had never visited the Palace Beautiful, or Vanity Fair. The indications of allegory in that beautiful story of the Pilgrim, considering the lapse of time, and the comparative length of the two pieces, are scarcely more conspicuous than in this exquisite song of Israel's wisest king. How do we know the Pilgrim's Progress to be an allegory, any more than Robinson Crusoe? Because we have the tradition from the author, the names of the characters, the circumstances, and the aptness of the application. The same evidence we have in respect to the Canticles; only, as the work is shorter, more ancient, and more remote, the evidence is less obvious at first sight.
We will now examine some of the objections which are usually urged against the allegorical interpretation:
1. The difficulty and variety of the allegorical interpretation. 'This objection applies with much greater force to the literal than to the allegorical method. Almost all the allegorical interpretations, following the analogy of the Bible and Oriental usage, proceed on one and the same idea, namely, the mutual love between God and his chosen people ; while the literal expositions, having neither guide nor limit, neither way-mark nor boundary, are almost infinitely diversified, and scarcely any two alike. The literal interpretations differ essentially, the allegorical only circumstantially. The Jews applied the poem to themselves as being the chosen people of God, and the Christians to themselves as being the chosen people of God. They in fact agree in their interpretation, they differ only as to the question who are the chosen people of God.
2. The supposed uselessness of the allegory. To the Orientals, who are accustomed to writings of this kind, whose taste and habits demand them, the allegory is not useless, but in the highest degree both pleasurable and profitable. Seven-eighths of the human race who have lived on the earth, have been Orientals;