One of the world’s greatest love poems. . .

February 11, 1997
Contact: michigannews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—With Valentine’s Day on its way, the hearts and minds of millions turn to love. And when people think of great love stories, they’re most likely think of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Antony and Cleopatra” or “Gone With the Wind.”

But Ralph Williams, professor of English and director of the Program on Studies in Religion at the University of Michigan, says the English Bible abounds with stories of love and intimacy.

Williams says the biblical book “Song of Songs” is one of “the most tender and intimate love poems in the world.” Traditionally believed to be the writing of King Solomon, Williams says scholars now think the poem was written by another ancient scribe. But the poem does reflect the tradition of King Solomon, who was known for his “exuberant amorous nature,” Williams says. “At one time, Solomon had more than 1,000 wives and concubines.”

Williams says the poem “is remarkable because, while it’s probably drawn together by a male, it expresses desire and love from both male and female points of view.” The poem, he says, in addition to voicing the male’s feelings of love, explores a woman’s erotic desires as well as her emotional longings. It also probes her fears and insecurities.

Williams points to one of his favorite passages from “Song of Songs,” as a particularly stirring example of love poetry.

“This passage is at the end of Song of Songs and represents in its first part an appeal for love. As it goes on, it makes a comment which is fully appropriate for Valentine’s Day, I think, as well as the full year,” Williams says. “That is, it suggests, if anyone were to say to you, ‘Give up love and I’ll give you all the wealth of my house,’ would you do it?”

“The answer that the texts understands is likely to come is ‘No, no, no, no, no… Not for the full world!'” Williams remarks. “That’s the answer that one expects in the text, that’s the answer that one might expect now.” Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal under your arm. A love is strong as death, jealousy as cruel as the grave,

Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame.

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.

If a man offered for love, all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.

Oh you who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for your voice; let me hear it.

Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices. (Song of Songs, 8:6-7;13-14)

“It’s a stupendous love song,” Williams says.

Williams also stresses that the “Song of Songs” is not the only chronicle of love and intimacy in the English Bible. The concept of familial bonds and interpersonal intimacy can be found throughout the English Bible. And, he says, the whole text is an account of a love story between God and his people. “It’s a story that places God as a lover who has been wronged by his people, but keeps on loving.”