Commentary from The Song of Songs: A New Translation and Interpretation by Marcia Falk (Harper 1990; available in libraries)


This is one of the most controversial poems in the Song of Songs. Spoken by a woman to an audience of hostile observers, the city women (literally, "the daughters of Jerusalem"), it is a statement of self-affirmation and pride. Most commentators, however, read the poem, in particular the opening line, as an apology; and most translations reflect this interpretation. Virtually all standard English renditions translate the conjunction in line 1 as "but," as in the King James Version: "I am swarthy but comely." The exception comes only in 1989, with The Revised English Bible's rendition: "I am dark and lovely." Indeed, the Hebrew conjunction means "and" far more commonly than "but"; the standard translations are based on the biased assumption that blackness and beauty are contradictory.

I believe that the woman's assertion of her blackness is affirmative, not apologetic, and that the tension in the poem is the result of conflict between her and her audience. The city women stare with critical eyes, yet the speaker defies them to diminish her self-esteem. No, she argues, I will not be judged by your standards; I am black and I am beautiful. Thus, the images in the first stanza should be seen as parallel: the tents of the nomadic tribe of Kedar and the drapes of King Solomon are each dark and attractive veils. There is both pride and mystery in these images, as the speaker defies her beholders to penetrate, with their stares, the outer cloak of her skin.

The speaker knows that she is the object of public scrutiny, but she claims to be accustomed to such attention. The sun itself has gazed at her, burning her, but also, she implies, admiring her. The poem resounds with underlying paradoxes: light that causes blackness, and light that is contained in blackness--images buried in the roots of central words. The root sh-z-f (in sheshezafatni) means "burn" but also "glance": the eye of the heavens glances and, glancing, burns. It burns the woman "black" sh'horah, and again "black-black," sh'harhoret. The common tendency to read sh'harhoret as a diminutive of sh'horah, hence meaning "a little black" or "blackish," is counterintuitive: the doubled root suggests intensification rather than diminution. The root of these words, sh-h-r, is also the root of shahar, meaning "dawn" or, originally, "the light before the dawn." The woman is radiant in her blackness, glowing as the source of light that has burned her. Hence, "Black as the light before the dawn," in my translation.

The last stanza presents the greatest difficulties to interpretation. It is unclear why the "mother's sons" (half-brothers? or siblings referred to by a distancing term?) are angry with the speaker, and whether her assignment as keeper of vineyards is a punishment meted out because she has neglected herself or whether the self-neglect is a result of the difficult task assigned her. In either case, the vineyards (discussed in the previous chapter of this study) are here a sexual symbol: "my own" vineyard refers to the speaker's self; the statement that she has neglected her own vines seems to be an allusion to her not having guarded her own sexuality. Implied is the violation of a moral norm, but it is difficult to be specific about what this norm is. I did not try to resolve all these questions of interpretation in my translation, but chose instead to let some ambiguities stand in the English as I believe they do in the Hebrew.



The tone of this Hebrew poem is unlike that of any other in the Song of Songs. The strong parallelisms, the extensive use of alliteration, and the sweeping images of fire and water all contribute to the dramatic mood. Perhaps because of this intensity, some commentators assume a male speaker here, but the pronominal suffixes indicate that a male is being addressed, making a female speaker likely.

The opening lines are, literally, "put me like a seal on your heart / like a seal on your arm" and are often understood as a reference to amulets worn on the chest or arm. The seal may have been a sign of ownership (as in Genesis 38:18), but this meaning is inappropriate here and is directly negated by the poem's ending. In keeping with the fiery imagery of the poem, I have suggested in my translation the stronger image of an emblem pressed or seared into the flesh. So too the Zohar, the central work of Kabbalah, comments: "'Set me as a seal upon thy heart.' For, as the imprint of the seal is to be discerned even after the seal is withdrawn, so I shall cling to you."

The word shalhevetyah, which I translate "a fierce / and holy blaze," contains the emphatic particle suffix, -yah, which has traditionally been viewed as a reference to the name of God, the only such reference in the Song. Most translations render this word without mentioning God, as in "a most vehement flame" and "a blazing flame." Theodore Meek suggests "flame of Yah," finding the meaning "emphatic in accordance with the Hebrew idiom of using the divine name with superlative force." I have deliberately retained just a hint of the word's sacral association in my translation, "holy blaze."

Indeed, the poem has cosmic, if not religious, overtones. Mayim rabbim (line 7), literally, "many, or great, waters," which I translate "Endless seas and floods, / Torrents," may be a reference to a mythical force, the waters of chaos. Sh'ol, which I translate (with the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version) "the grave," is actually the place of the dead in Hebrew cosmology. While "the grave" may seem a weak equivalent for sh'ol, the alternatives are worse; "hell," for example, has many inappropriate connotations, and could not be used.

The poem closes with an aphorism, leading from the world of myth into the realm of human mores and behavior. The message of the poem is emphatic: love cannot be bought, and those who try to acquire love with money will be scorned, or will find their offer met with scorn (the Hebrew pronoun lo, indicating the object of the reprobation, may refer either to the buyer or to his wealth). It becomes clear that the "seal" of the opening lines is not a sign of acquired possession, since the poem argues vehemently against viewing love as an object that can be owned.

Thus, mythic vision climaxes in didactic pronouncement, giving the poem a sermonic shape. Yet the poem remains, first and essentially, a love lyric, which opens with an entreaty to the beloved; it should not be reduced to the moral lesson of its closing adage. Perhaps to avoid this risk, The Jerusalem Bible isolates the last stanza and labels it an appendix, the "Aphorism of a Sage." But this cuts off the resolution of the speech and denies poetic closure. Rather, the poem should be seen as a complex unit that moves from an intense personal plea to a cosmic statement, and finally closes with a pronouncement of practical morality.


© Marcia Lee Falk.