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SIDIC Periodical XVI - 1983/1
The Song of Songs (Pages 08 - 12)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Song of Songs in Christian Tradition
Barry Ulanov


The author sub-titles his article The Rhetoric of Love. In order to introduce it he has given a description of rhetoric, a precis of which we reproduce here. He then goes on to demonstrate how the Song appears in the writings of Origen, William of St. Thierry, Fray Luis de Leon, St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Jeanne de Chantal, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Bernard. In the impossibility of reproducing the whole of this article here, we have made a selection.

Rhetoric and the Song of Songs

Rhetoric knows special triumphs in the Song of Songs because the speech of this greatest of biblical poems is highly artificial. It is packed with rhetorical figures all of which, no matter what their surface simplicity or complexity, are remote, abtruse, patently of an ambiguity of circumstance or characterization that will allow no less than two meanings and will often permit a half-dozen or more, going as far as the rhetorical training, the human experience and the poetic graces of the reader can take him.

One cannot fight shy of rhetoric in the Song of Songs. It calls a cheek a cheek, a breast a breast, and an eye an eye. But it also calls a cheek a piece of pomegranate, a breast a young roe, an eye a weapon that wounds.

The Song of Songs is not for the literal minded. Those who think, as they read, by the letter, must surely be outraged by the- bride's description of her beloved (see 5:11-15). Those, on the other hand, who by temperament or training are always constrained to go beyond the letter are not made unhappy by such figures. They recognize here and ancient art, practised by pagans as by Jews. The pagans, indeed, provided a vocabulary and a method with which to judge not only the products of pedantry, but also those of sacred inspiration.

Origen, the first commentator on the Song who was not a rabbi, inevitably looked at the text as one trained in the rhetorical traditions of Greece and Rome, that is to say, as a work designed to persuade, to lead to decisions, and to bring to play feelings that so change men as to affect their judgments. This traditional rhetoric of the senses was basis enough to allow the saints to read the song in depth.

William of St. Thierry

William of St. Thierry, nine centuries later than Origen, had an unshakable conviction that the bridegroom of the Song of Songs was, like the bridegroom of the nineteenth psalm and of Isaiah 62:5, the figure of Christ explicitly identified by Jesus in his parable of the wise and foolish virgins (see Matt. 25:5-6, 10) as well as in his rhetorical question:
"Can the children of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast" (Matt. 9:15).

Thus for William, the bridegroom who asks his bride to unveil is that Sun of Justice who has made the light of his face and the splendor of his truth "to shine before the eyes of all." Thus "the soul of good will . . . the man, that is to say, who is Christ's brother and whose soul is called his sister" yearns to appear before him without adornment and in his light to see light.

If she is a sinner, she shows to thee the face of her misery, and seeks for the face of thy mercy. If she is holy, she runs to meet thee with the face of her righteousness, and finds in thee a face resembling her own, for thou, O righteous Lord, lovest all righteousness. But the soul that has a harlot's brow has no desire to blush, and, fleeing from thy truth, comes face to face with thy most fearful justice. For the human soul turns to thee as many faces as she has dispositions. Yet thou, O Truth, receivest all and, though thou dost adapt thyself to all, thou art thyself unchanged. Devout humility finds in thee friendly flavor, a burning love finds sweetest fuel for its flames; the lowly heart's contrition finds in thee the righteousness it sought, the harlot's brow finds itself put to shame. 1

The special grace of the rhetoric of the Song of Songs is that it makes accessible, at least to those who find their ease in Origen's and William's kind of accommodation, a most firmly fleshed Godhead. The face of Christ is very clear to William, and a burning magnet: "If our soul's face does not seek thy face, her face is not a human face at all, but a beast's face and a mask.

(By contrast), an enemy... finds in thee a fiery oven, a sinner finds the portion of his cup, fetter and flames, sulphur and stormy winds, the proud finds the power that resists the proud; the hypocrite the light of truth that he abhors. And all these, whose consciences are branded each with the face of his own particular evil, present in general the face of unrepentant badness.

William. dense he says with misery, lifts his face to the Lord, "the face of my sore plight and my great blindness," the face that finds its first bones and flesh in the rhetoric of the Song of Songs.'
The Song serves William well. When he considers the fruits of the Incarnation, the figure he uses is out of the Song; for what has the Lord been doing in His dealings with man but "sweetly ordering all things for the sake of the daughters of Jerusalem." Then he identifies the daughters: "Souls devout but weak as yet, who, since their faculties are not yet trained to contemplate those lofty mysteries, nevertheless love to be touched and moved by the lowliness wherein thou art made like unto themselves".3 Williams touch is sure, his reading graceful. In a few words he accounts for the sensuality of the daughters of Jerusalem, who "love to be touched," and for their taunting manner, their "lowliness." And with the same words he describes the magic of the Song of Songs for all who find in it a language of worship, that it is Christ Himself who is there associated with the lowly and the weak, Christ Himself, the condign sign of whose human condition is the flesh He has taken on. In the Song of Songs the language of worship is the language of love, manifestly fleshly love. Nothing, for the mystic, better signifies spiritual love. Nothing better describes the mystery of hypostatic union which is instinct in the Incarnation.

Thus, in the boldest and most commanding of William of St. Thierry's glosses of this text, he transmutes the fruit of the garden of the bridegroom in the Song, and the honey and the wine, which he has eaten and drunk and of which he has invited others to partake, into the food of the Last Supper and of the Cross and of the Eucharist. The invitation in the Song reads:-

I am come into my garden, O my sister, my spouse,
I have gathered my myrrh, with my aromaticalspice:
I have eaten the honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine my milk:
Eat, O friends, and drink, and be inebriated, my dearly beloved.


William, examining the picture of the Passion closely, seems to hear it say: "When I loved you, I loved you to the end. Let death and hell lay hold on me, that I may die their death; eat, friends, and drink abundantly, beloved, unto life eternal." The parallel is clear enough. Williams sees in the invitation of the Song to eat and be inebriated ("drink abundantly") the great tender of the Incarnation.

(What) happier arrangement could have been made for the man who wanted to ascend to his God ... than that, instead of going up by steps to the altar, he should walk calmly and smoothly, over the floor of likeness, to a Man like himself, who tells him on the very threshold, "I and the Father are one," and that forthwith, being himself gathered up to God in love through the Holy Spirit, he should receive God coming to himself and making His abode with him, not spiritually only but corporeally too, in the mystery of the holy and life-giving Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.4

Fray Luis De Leon

No commentators are more aware of "the floor of likeness" than ,the Spaniards for whom the Song of Songs is like an article of faith. The Augustinian Fray Luis de Leon, for example, whose Hebrew and Chaldaic scholarship were such that he could not refrain from criticizing the accuracy of the Latin of the Vulgate Bible, was so devoted to the Song that at some danger to himself he translated it into Spanish, and added a learned commentary. The result was denunciation of the friar to the Inquisition as a man of dubious, that is, Jewish ancestry and with an even more questionable addiction to the biblical readings of the rabbis. Imprisonment did not dim the fires of his love for the Song. He published an expanded version of his commentary in Latin, and he grounded the most polished of his theological-rhetorical expositions, that on The Names of Christ, in the language and figures of the Song of Songs.

For Fray Luis, as for Duns Scotus before him and Suarez just after, the universe was created to make possible the Incarnation. The Song broadens and deepens our understanding of this end and purpose of all creation, as it makes vivid the physical figure of the Lord. The Song provides us with a poetic description of Christ's body (see 5:11-15, quoted above).5 It makes Jesus palpable in the figure of the Good Shepherd; and Fray Luis is quick to point to all the texts that proclaim the zeal, the urgency, and the solicitude of the Shepherd's husbandry: 6

Show me, O thou whom my soul lovest,
where thou feedest,
where thou liest in the midday,
Lest I begin to wander
after the flocks of thy companions.


Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one,
and come.
For winter is now past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers have appeared in our land, the time of pruning is come:
the voice of the turtle is heard in our land: The fig tree hath put forth her green figs:
the vines in flower yield their sweet smell. Arise my love, my beautiful one, and come.


Open to me, my sister, my love,
my dove, my undefiled:
For my head is full of dew,
and my locks of the drops of the night.


The latter text is to him a sign of the Shepherd's vigilance, of His rising before dawn, or refusing any sleep at all, as He seeks eternal entrance into the hearts of men. No text better describes the tender care,

the merciful ways in which God prevents a man from being lost, even when he seeks his own damnation... His unwillingness to admit defeat in spite of our repeated ingratitude, His compassing us about on all sides in an attempt to enter within us, His hand always upon the latch of the gate of our heart, His pleading in gentle and loving words to open to Him, as if nothing else mattered to Him... 7

Greater even than Shepherd among the names of Christ is that of Bridegroom. For in this name is compounded several central cycles of creation. Here is the growth of the world .in time from infancy until that ultimate marriage which will bring time to an end. Here are the states of nature, of the law, and of grace. Here is the history of the Church, from childhood to maturity, with the Bridegroom playing in each age the suitable role, the whole narrative chronicled in the Song of Songs:

Thus, in the first part of the Canticle, which takes us to the middle of the second chapter, God speaks of things which reflect the condition of His spouse in the state of nature and the type of love which the Bridegroom has for her. From this passage (see 2:13) to the fifth chapter the state of the law is described. The remainder of the Canticle is a symbol of Christ's love for His spouse in the period or age of grace. 8

With this structure before him, Fray Luis does not find it difficult to describe the Church's history in the rhetorical figures of the Song. As a young girl, the spouse uses "the privileges of her childhood and, manifesting the impatience which strong desires arouse at that age," begs for the Bridegroom's kisses (see 1:1). In the second state of life, when the spouse is in bondage in Egypt, the Bridegroom comes to deliver her. She is summoned, in Fray Luis's interpretation of the Song, in "beautiful figures," and who can deny the force of this reading of the rhetoric? The Bridegroom calls: "Arise, make haste, my love.., winter is now past, the rain is over..." (2:10-11). Again the call comes, and "as one who is older and more daring, she gladly answers..." She goes to seek her divine Lover: "In my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loveth... and found him not... in the streets and the broad ways I will seek him..." (3:1-2). When she finds him, she holds him tight, promising she will not let him go until she has brought him into the "mother's" house, and into the chamber of her that bore me" (3:4).

Fray Luis's comment on this verse is that the bride always "bore" the Bridegroom "before her" until she came into the promised land. His reading goes through each of the stages of history, each of the ages of the Church, all figured in terms of the bride's progress through the Song and revealed in the exalted language of the rhetoric of love. The exquisite lauds of the fourth chapter, in which the King-Bridegroom praises each of His bride's beauties in sequence, are part of a masterful military figure, according to Fray Luis. The Bridegroom sees His spouse spread before Him like the tribes of Israel marching through the desert by day and encamped by night. Fray Luis sees the tribes configured by each of the bride's parts — her eyes are by day the cloud that led the Israelites, by night the pillar of fire; her hair, the vanguard of the column; her teeth, the tribes of Gad and Ruben; her lips, priests and Levites; her cheeks, the tribe of Ephraim; her neck, Dan; her breasts, the sustaining figures of Moses and Aaron. In the promised land, the spouse is "a garden enclosed" (4:12). In the last epoch, that of grace, Christ comes to His bride, asking her to open to Him (see 5:2); when the people — His people, His spouse — appear reluctant, He says sadly:

I have put off my garment,
how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet,
how shall I defile them?


Once again He departs, this time to seek another more grateful people; once again the bride searches for Him, crying out as she goes about the city. And so the narrative continues, as Fray Luis tells it, until the spouse has grown to such a stature, in her love and knowledge, that she is no longer confined to one nation; she embraces the world, and in peace and prayer looks only to the consummation of her marriage in a eternity of joy .9

St. John of the Cross

Fray Luis went to prison because of his translation of the Song of Songs. In prison, St. John of the Cross drew from the Song most of the matter and much of the manner of his Spiritual Canticle and of one or two other poems. Thrown into a six-by-ten foot dungeon in Toledo by his Mitigated Carmelite brethren, and made to survive on a diet of dry bread and one sardine a day, St. John found, in the early nine months of his captivity, his sustenance in contemplation of mystical union. Like the bride in the Song, he sought his hidden Lord. Unlike the bride, he sought help not from the watchmen of the city, but from all creatures:

O woods and thickets,
Planted by the hand of the Beloved, O meadow of green
Enamelled with flowers,
Say if He has passed you by.

The creatures offer little help: The bridegroom had passed through their groves, "scattering a thousand graces" as he hurried by. In the many verses consecrated to the bride, and the seven in which the bridegroom speaks, the freshness of St. John's verse is unmistakable, but so too are the texture, the tone, the very images of the Song of Songs. The bride compares her beloved to the mountains, he sees her as a dove. She recalls that he loved to watch one hair on her neck flutter in the breeze. She comes into the bridegroom's garden, under his apple tree. And in her final verses, the final ones of St. John's Canticle, the bride echoes the rejoicing of the last lines of the scriptural Canticle, as she asks her lover to drink the new wine with her, and to bring her what her soul has so long desired, to consume her in a flame that cannot pain.

St. John sings songs both more explicit and more oblique than the great Song. He imposes upon the imagery of Scripture his own mountain, Carmel, and his own night, the dark night of the soul. He adds and subtracts at will, to construct what is still the most thorough and the most compelling of systematic mystical theologies. But the Song is always a counterpoint to his melodies: Only the psalms, among his scriptural sources, appear more often. For in the Song he finds a constant reiteration of the theology of the Gospels, of St. Paul, of the book of Wisdom, of the book of Job, and something more besides, a language of human experience — of his own experience. When in the course of his commentary on the Spiritual Canticle he comes to find a verbal likeness for transforming union, he reinforces again and again the bride's cry in his own poems, imploring a stream to reflect on its crystalline surface the eyes of her beloved, the eyes "which I hold outlined in my inmost parts." St. Paul means the same thing when he says: "I live, now not I; but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20).

Following this image of transformation, it can be said that St. Paul's life and his Lord's have become one through the union of love. And so it may for any one of us in this life, though less than perfect fulfillment; "the soul may reach such a transformation of love as in the spiritual marriage, which is the highest estate that can be attained in this life..." By "comparison with the perfect image of transformation in glory," this is only an outline of love. But it is happiness enough; it pleases the beloved. Hence, seeking to be held in the bride's soul, he says: "Put me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thy arm" (8:6). The heart, St. John explains, "signifies the soul, whereupon God is set in this life as the seal of an outline of faith," and the arm represents a strong will, "wherein it is as the seal of an outline of love." l' St. John has found his theology in St. Paul; but his rhetorical figure, the one he uses in his own poem, comes from the Song, which was in every way his spiritual canticle and the seal of his faith and of his love.

The most compelling rhetoric in the Song of Songs is, for St. John, that of identity, multiple identity. The many exchanges of personae in the Song of Songs are paralleled again and again in his songs, for this is the root meaning of the Song to the mystic, this its special suasion and enduring grace: What is accomplished in the intimate union of bride and bridegroom is not a mere physical coupling but a radical transformation of personality in which the one somehow becomes the other. The bride enters into the bridegroom, just as the bridegroom enters into her. Each goes into the other's garden. Each describes the other in images incomparably voluptuous, even in the literature of the East, where the love of the spirit so often finds translation into the language of the love of the body. And regularly, the mystics have interchanged and drawn together these images so that, for example, the breasts that are unmistakably the bride's may, in figurative language, become the bridegroom's — that is, Christ's, the Lord's — and all manner of meaning may be accommodated to them: the two Testaments or the two Laws or Israel and the Gentiles. It is all a way of saying, with considerable richness of image and subtlety of phrase, that the Incarnation effects a double movement of the spirit, the divine inhabiting the human and the human seeking a corresponding enclosure in the divine. What is sought is nothing less than mystical marriage, and, at least in the vision of the Song that is the mystics', it is found.

This article first appeared in a more complete form in THE BRIDGE, Vol. IV, 1962, and is printed in this reduced form with the kind permission of the editor, Mgr. John Oesterreicher. The author, Barry Ulanov, is Professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia Uni¬versity, New York. His studies are in the renaissance period, and he has published many works in the fields of theology, philosophy, literature and music. We crave his indulgence for having taken liberties with his long article which we regret being unable to reproduce in full.

1. The Meditations of William of St. Thierry, trans. A Religious of C.S.M.V. (New York: Harper, 1954), p. 59.
2. Ibid., pp. 62-63, 64.
3. The Meditations of William of St. Thierry, pp. 71-72.
4.Ibid., pp. 73-75.
5. See Luis de Leon, O.S.A., "The Face of God", The Names of Christ, trans. Edward J. Schuster (St. Louis: Herder, 1955), especially pp. 40-41.
6. See ibid., pp. 57-70.
7. Ibid., pp. 151-152.
8. Ibid., p. 212.
9. See ibid., pp. 212-217.
10. St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, or more precisely, "Songs between the Soul and the Spouse", Stanza IV.
11. Commentary on Stanza XII in Second Redaction of the Spiritual Canticle. See The Complete Works, II, 238.


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