Friday, April 08, 2005

Follow the Myrrh (Lesson Plans)

It being almost Friday night here, I thought I’d post one of my favorite passages from my favorite book of the Bible, the Song of Songs. I like the translation by Chana and Ariel Bloch, and teach it regularly in my Love Poetry classes; this passage, though, I like to use in my introduction to poetry courses, too, with a question or two to guide (and tease) the students.

First, the passage: Chapter 4:1-7

How beautiful you are, my love,
my friend! The doves of your eyes
looking out
from the thicket of your hair.

Your hair
like a flock of goats
bounding down Mount Gilead.

Your teeth white ewes,
all alike,
that come up fresh from the pond.

A crimson ribbon your lips--
how I listen for your voice!

The curve of your cheek
a pomegranate
in the thicket of your hair.

Your neck is a tower of David
raised in splendor,
a thousand bucklers hang upon it,
all the shields of the warriors.

Your breasts are two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
grazing in a field of lilies.

Before day breathes,
before the shadows of night are gone,
I will hurry to the mountain of myrrh,
the hill of frankincense.

You are all beautiful, my love,
my perfect one.
Yum. Oh, yes, the assignment. A simple one, based on the "divide and conquer" model. I ask them to spot any patterns in this wasf (list of praised body parts), stanza to stanza, and then see where any pattern they have spotted seems to break. Here's a hint for you: the one I like to make sure they spot involves a body part being named and identified, by simile or metaphor, with something else. The break comes when the identification happens without any part being named: a moment of erotic decorum that I find both inviting and delightful.

In chapter 5, verses 9-16, the Shulamite returns her beloved's complements with a blazon of her own, likewise moving top to toe. "How is your lover different / from any other?" the daughters of Jerusalem demand. Her response:

My beloved is milk and wine,
he towers
above ten thousand.

His hair is burnished gold,
the mane of his hair
black as the raven.

His eyes like doves,
by the rivers
of milk and plenty.

His cheeks a bed of spices,
a treasure
of precious scents, his lips
red lilies wet with myrrh.*

His arm a golden scepter with gems of topaz,
his loins the ivory of thrones
inlaid with sapphire,
his thighs like marble pillars
on pedastals of gold.

Tall as Mount Lebanon,
a man like a cedar!

His mouth is sweet wine, he is all delight.

This is my beloved,
and this is my friend,
O daughters of Jerusalem.
Now that's what I call saying something wonderful.

(*Another assignment, when you have the whole poem at hand: follow the myrrh.)


Mark Scroggins said...

We here at Culture Industry have taken off our glasses and are pretending to polish them -- actually, we're mopping our sternly bald foreheads & hoping no-one notices us blushing. You cheeky devil, you -- and in the Good Book, no less! (There's many reasons to give it that sobriquet...)

Rosellen Brown said...

Eric! The blog is fantastic.
I'm afraid I'm going to become an addict. You're going on my FAVORITES list so that I can get in fast with a click. I don't know how you have time for this but I'm grateful.
Look for more substantive responses when I get over my awe.