First impressions count. And what's our first impression of Song of Songs?
Well, heavy necking at least. Other than the title-like verse, "The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's" (1:1), the first thing we read in this poem is the bride's desperate declaration: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!" (1:2).
Basically, the bride is a young girl in love. Other than that, all we really know about her is that she's beautiful, that she has a thing for the groom, and that her family is less than happy about the whole situation.
But let's dig a little deeper anyway. There's no way poetry is letting us off that easy, right?
We're guessing you didn't miss the part in 1:5 where the bride declares, "I am black and beautiful," right? Actually, some translations read "and" as "but," which in our world, gives the phrase a whole new and totally uncool connotation. So what are we to make of all this fuss?
Full disclosure: we have no idea.
A few stray thinkers have interpreted this to mean that the bride is actually the Queen of Sheba, a fabled monarch of Ethiopia who lived around the time of Solomon. To be honest, we're not sold. She's never mentioned by name and, well, there's just no other evidence.
Shmoop is big fan of reading things in context. (See, we were listening in English class!) Looking at what's around the question-marked verse will help us make an educated guess on what it's saying. So here's the whole verse:
I am black and beautiful,
O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar,
like the curtains of Solomon.
Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother's sons were angry with me;
they made me keeper of the vineyards,
but my own vineyard I have not kept! (1:5-6)
So people are actually looking at her funny because her skin is a different color. And why is her skin a different color? Well, she practically out and tells us: "because the sun has gazed on me." That's basically a really poetic way of saying she has a killer farmer's tan.
There are two ways of looking at this. Maybe this lady was actually working the fields. That would put her in a class below the upper class ladies of the cities. Like, say, the daughters of Jerusalem. She's telling them, "yeah, maybe I'm a field lady, but I'm still beautiful. So shove it."
If we read it more figuratively, we could think of the vineyard as her, um, womanhood. That's not off-base, given that later in Song of Songs, we're pretty sure she does it again: "But my own vineyard is mine to give" (8:12). If this is the case, the bride has not kept her "own vineyard"—whether she means her virginity or just her bachelorette-hood, we can't be sure. Either way, her brothers aren't happy about it.
We're not sure if it's the stress from her family or just her poetic inclinations, but this girl sure has some strange dreams. Let's play psychiatrist for a minute and see what we can do with them.
All of the bride's dreams seem to be about her internal struggle to bring her man back into her house. For starters, we're pretty sure that means that her love is passionate and all-consuming. We all know that whatever's on our mind is usually what manages to seep into our dreams. Her dreams also show us what she doesn't have. She just can't seem to bring this man fully into her life.
Before we go get our dream reader degree, though, we should remember that we're never told explicitly how much of these dreams are, well, dreams. In Chapter 5, for example, we jump from definite dream territory ("I slept, but my heart was awake" [5:2]) to a description of the bride walking around in the city searching for her groom. Is she still dreaming? We'll leave that for you to decide.
Speaking of dreams vs. reality, what on earth is going on in 5:7 when the bride is attacked at night by the city sentinels?
Making their rounds in the city
the sentinels found me;
they beat me, they wounded me,
they took away my mantle,
those sentinels of the walls. (5:7)
If we're reading this right, this girl was looking for her man when these guys just attack her. First question: don't you think that getting attacked in the dead of night would warrant a few more lines? Maybe in our world, but in the lovesick world of the bride, it seems like the episode is described to prove how much the bride loves the groom.
See, it's possible that the guards thought our girl was a prostitute. The image of a single woman wandering around a city alone at night carried many of the same connotations in the ancient world that it does today, and ancient readers would have definitely picked up on it. The contrast between the country landscape and this urban image would highlight the possibility even more.
After being assaulted, though, all the bride can think about is how much she loves the groom. She gushes to her friends that she is still "faint with love," just reinforcing her total commitment to her man.
With all this talk of devotion, it's not surprising that the bride doesn't spend her time extolling her own amazing qualities. No, when she speaks, she speaks of love and the groom. But that means that the opposite is true, too, so we get some nice goodies from the groom about the bride:
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil.
There are sixty queens and eighty concubines,
and maidens without number.
My dove, my perfect one, is the only one,
the darling of her mother,
flawless to her that bore her.
The maidens saw her and called her happy;
the queens and concubines also, and they praised her. (6:7-9)
Might want to stash those lines in your love poetry drawer.
What's the point of this passage? Well, the groom, as we've heard, is a hot ticket. But the bride—she's on a totally different level. Not only is the bride beautiful, but she is "perfect" to the point where she surpasses queens, concubines, and maidens. Might not sound like much, but in the ancient world, that was the who's-who of women who have power through beauty.
The bride, dear Shmoopers, is the crème de la crème.
P.S. If you're wondering if the bride might represent something bigger than just a lovely lady, you're not alone. For some thoughts on the allegorical interpretation of the bride, check out our "Symbols" section.