The Book of Delight and Other Papers
Israel Abrahams

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Hebrew Love Songs

Palestine is still the land of song. There the peasant sings Arabic ditties in the field when he sows and reaps, in the desert when he tends his flock, at the oasis when the caravan rests for the night, and when camels are remounted next morning. The maiden’s fresh voice keeps droning rhythm with her hands and feet as she carries water from the well or wood from the scanty forest, when she milks the goats, and when she bakes the bread.

The burden of a large portion of these songs is love. The love motive is most prominent musically during the long week of wedding festivities, but it is by no means limited to these occasions. The songs often contain an element of quaint, even arch, repartee, in which the girl usually has the better of the argument. Certainly the songs are sometimes gross, but only in the sense that they are vividly natural. With no delicacy of expression, they are seldom intrinsically coarse. The troubadours of Europe trilled more daintily of love, but there was at times an illicit note in their lays. Eastern love songs never attain the ideal purity of Dante, but they hardly ever sink to the level of Ovid.

But why begin an account of Hebrew love songs by citing extant Palestinian examples in Arabic? Because there is an undeniable, if remote, relationship between some of the latter and the Biblical Song of Songs. In that marvellous poem, outspoken praise of earthly beauty, frank enumeration of the physical charms of the lovers, thorough unreserve of imagery, are conspicuous enough. Just these features, as Wetzstein showed, are reproduced, in a debased, yet recognizable, likeness, by the modern Syrian wasf–a lyric description of the bodily perfections and adornments of a newly-wed pair. The Song of Songs, or Canticles, it is true, is hardly a marriage ode or drama; its theme is betrothed faith rather than marital affection. Still, if we choose to regard the Song of Songs as poetry merely of the wasf type, the Hebrew is not only far older than any extant Arabic instance, but it transcends the wasf type as a work of inspired genius transcends conventional exercises in verse-making. There are superficial similarities between the wasf and Canticles, but there is no spiritual kinship. The wasf is to the Song as Lovelace is to Shakespeare, nay, the distance is even greater. The difference is not only of degree, it is essential. The one touches the surface of love, the other sounds its depths. The Song of Songs immeasurably surpasses the wasf even as poetry. It has been well said by Dr. Harper (author of the best English edition of Canticles), that, viewed simply as poetry, the Song of Songs belongs to the loveliest masterpieces of art. “If, as Milton said, ’poetry should be simple, sensuous, passionate,’ then here we have poetry of singular beauty and power. Such unaffected delight in all things fair as we find here is rare in any literature, and is especially remarkable in ancient Hebrew literature. The beauty of the world and of the creatures in it has been so deeply and warmly felt, that even to-day the ancient poet’s emotion of joy in them thrills through the reader.”

It is superfluous to justify this eulogy by quotation. It is impossible also, unless the quotation extend to the whole book. Yet one scene shall be cited, the exquisite, lyrical dialogue of spring, beginning with the tenth verse of the second chapter. It is a dialogue, though the whole is reported by one speaker, the Shulammite maid. Her shepherd lover calls to her as she stands hidden behind a lattice, in the palace in Lebanon, whither she has been decoyed, or persuaded to go, by the “ladies of Jerusalem.”

  The shepherd lover calls
    Rise up, my love,
        My fair one, come away!
    For, lo, the winter is past,
    The rain is over and gone,
    The flowers appear on the earth:
    The birds’ singing time is here,
    And the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land.
    The fig-tree ripens red her winter fruit,
    And blossoming vines give forth fragrance.
    Rise up, my love,
        My fair one, come away!

Shulammith makes no answer, though she feels that the shepherd is conscious of her presence. She is, as it were, in an unapproachable steep, such as the wild dove selects for her shy nest. So he goes on:

  O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock,
  In the covert of the steep!
  Let me see thy face,
  Let me hear thy voice,
  For sweet is thy voice, and thy face comely!

She remains tantalizingly invisible, but becomes audible. She sings a snatch from a vineyard-watcher’s song, hinting, perhaps, at the need in which her person (her “vineyard” as she elsewhere calls it) stands of protection against royal foxes, small and large.

  Shulammith sings
    Take us the foxes,
    The little foxes,
        That spoil the vineyards:
    For our vines are in blossom!

Then, in loving rapture,

  Shulammith speaks in an aside
    My beloved is mine, and I am his:
    He feedeth his flock among the lilies!

But she cannot refuse her lover one glance at herself, even though she appear only to warn him of his danger, to urge him to leave her and return when the day is over.

  Shulammith entreatingly to her lover
    Until the evening breeze blows,
    And the shadows disappear (at sunset),
    Turn, my beloved!
    Be thou as a young hart
    Upon the cleft-riven hills!

This is but one of the many dainty love idylls of this divine poem. Or, again, “could the curious helplessness of the dreamer in a dream and the yearning of a maiden’s affection be more exquisitely expressed than in the lines beginning, I was asleep, but my heart waked”? But, indeed, as the critic I am quoting continues, “the felicities of expression and the happy imaginings of the poem are endless. The spring of nature and of love has been caught and fixed in its many exquisite lines, as only Shakespeare elsewhere has done it; and, understood as we think it must be understood, it has that ethical background of sacrifice and self-forgetting which all love must have to be thoroughly worthy.”

It is this ethical, or, as I prefer to term it, spiritual, background that discriminates the Song of Songs on the one hand from the Idylls of Theocritus, and, on the other, from the Syrian popular ditties. Some moderns, notably Budde, hold that the Book of Canticles is merely a collection of popular songs used at Syrian weddings, in which the bride figures as queen and her mate as king, just as Budde (wrongly) conceives them to figure in the Biblical Song. Budde suggests that there were “guilds of professional singers at weddings, and that we have in the Song of Songs simply the repertoire of some ancient guild-brother, who, in order to assist his memory, wrote down at random all the songs he could remember, or those he thought the best.”

But this theory has been generally rejected as unsatisfying. The book, despite its obscurities, is clearly a unity. It is no haphazard collection of love songs. There is a sustained dramatic action leading up to a noble climax. Some passages almost defy the attempt to fit them into a coherent plot, but most moderns detect the following story in Canticles: A beautiful maid of Shulem (perhaps another form of Shunem), beloved by a shepherd swain, is the only daughter of well-off but rustic parents. She is treated harshly by her brothers, who set her to watch the vineyards, and this exposure to the sun somewhat mars her beauty. Straying in the gardens, she is on a day in spring surprised by Solomon and his train, who are on a royal progress to the north. She is taken to the palace in the capital, and later to a royal abode in Lebanon. There the “ladies of Jerusalem” seek to win her affections for the king, who himself pays her his court. But she resists all blandishments, and remains faithful to her country lover. Surrendering graciously to her strenuous resistance, Solomon permits her to return unharmed to her mountain home. Her lover meets her, and as she draws near her native village, the maid, leaning on the shepherd’s arm, breaks forth into the glorious panegyric of love, which, even if it stood alone, would make the poem deathless. But it does not stand alone. It is in every sense a climax to what has gone before. And what a climax! It is a vindication of true love, which weighs no allurements of wealth and position against itself; a love of free inclination, yet altogether removed from license. Nor is it an expression of that lower love which may prevail in a polygamous state of society, when love is dissipated among many. We have here the love of one for one, an exclusive and absorbing devotion. For though the Bible never prohibited polygamy, the Jews had become monogamous from the Babylonian Exile at latest. The splendid praise of the virtuous woman at the end of the Book of Proverbs gives a picture, not only of monogamous home-life, but of woman’s influence at its highest. The virtuous woman of Proverbs is wife and mother, deft guide of the home, open-handed dispenser of charity, with the law of kindness on her tongue; but her activity also extends to the world outside the home, to the mart, to the business of life. Where, in olden literature, are woman’s activities wider or more manifold, her powers more fully developed? Now, the Song of Songs is the lyric companion to this prose picture. The whole Song works up towards the description of love in the last chapter–towards the culmination of the thought and feeling of the whole series of episodes. The Shulammite speaks:

  Set me as a seal upon thy heart,
  As a seal upon thine arm:
  For love is strong as death,
  Jealousy is cruel as the grave:
  The flashes thereof are flashes of fire,
  A very flame of God!
  Many waters cannot quench love,
  Neither can the floods drown it:
  If a man would give the substance of his house for love,
  He would be utterly contemned.

The vindication of the Hebrew song from degradation to the level of the Syrian wasf is easy enough. But some may feel that there is more plausibility in the case that has been set up for the connection between Canticles and another type of love song, the Idylls of Theocritus, the Sicilian poet whose Greek compositions gave lyric distinction to the Ptolemaic court at Alexandria, about the middle of the third century B.C.E. It is remarkable how reluctant some writers are to admit originality in ideas. Such writers seem to recognize no possibility other than supposing Theocritus to have copied Canticles, or Canticles Theocritus. It does not occur to them that both may be original, independent expressions of similar emotions. Least original among ideas is this denial of originality in ideas. Criticism has often stultified itself under the obsession that everything is borrowed. On this theory there can never have been an original note. The poet, we are told, is born, not made; but poetry, apparently, is always made, never born.

The truth rather is that as human nature is everywhere similar, there must necessarily be some similarity in its literary expression. This is emphatically the case with the expression given to the emotional side of human nature. The love of man for maid, rising everywhere from the same spring, must find lyric outlets that look a good deal alike. The family resemblance between the love poems of various peoples is due to the elemental kinship of the love. Every true lover is original, yet most true lovers, including those who have no familiarity with poetical literature, fall instinctively on the same terms of endearment. Differences only make themselves felt in the spiritual attitudes of various ages and races towards love. Theocritus has been compared to Canticles, by some on the ground of certain Orientalisms of his thought and phrases, as in his Praise of Ptolemy. But his love poems bear no trace of Orientalism in feeling, as Canticles shows no trace of Hellenism in its conception of love. The similarities are human, the differences racial.

Direct literary imitation of love lyrics certainly does occur. Virgil imitated Theocritus, and the freshness of the Greek Idyll became the convention of the Roman Eclogue. When such conscious imitation takes place, it is perfectly obvious. There is no mistaking the affectation of an urban lyrist, whose lovers masquerade as shepherds in the court of Louis XIV.

Theocritus seems to have had earlier Greek models, but few readers of his Idylls can question his originality, and fewer still will agree with Mahaffy in denying the naturalness of his goatherds and fishermen, in a word, his genuineness. Mahaffy wavers between two statements, that the Idylls are an affectation for Alexandria, and sincere for Sicily. The two statements are by no means contradictory. Much the same thing is true of Canticles, the Biblical Song of Songs. It is unreasonable for anyone who has seen or read about a Palestinian spring, with its unique beauty of flower and bird and blossom, to imagine that the author of Canticles needed or used second-hand sources of inspiration, however little his drama may have accorded with the life of Jerusalem in the Hellenistic period. And as the natural scenic background in each case is native, so is the treatment of the love theme; in both it is passionate, but in the one it is nothing else, in the other it is also spiritual. In both, the whole is artistic, but not artificial. As regards the originality of the love-interest in Canticles, it must suffice to say that there was always a strong romantic strain in the Jewish character.

Canticles is perhaps (by no means certainly) post-Exilic and not far removed in date from the age of Theocritus. Still, a post-Exilic Hebrew poet had no more reason to go abroad for a romantic plot than Hosea, or the author of Ruth, or the writer of the royal Epithalamium (Psalm xlv), an almost certainly pre-Exilic composition. This Psalm has been well termed a “prelude to the Song of Songs,” for in a real sense Canticles is anticipated and even necessitated by it. In Ruth we have a romance of the golden corn-field, and the author chooses the unsophisticated days of the Judges as the setting of his tale. In Canticles we have a contrasted picture between the simplicity of shepherd-life and the urban voluptuousness which was soon to attain its climax in the court of the Ptolemies. So the poet chose the luxurious reign of Solomon as the background for his exquisite “melodrama.” Both Ruth and Canticles are home-products, and ancient Greek literature has no real parallel to either.

Yet, despite the fact that the Hebrew Bible is permeated through and through, in its history, its psalmody, and its prophetic oratory, with images drawn from love, especially in rustic guise, so competent a critic as Graetz conceived that the pastoral background of the love-story of Canticles must have been artificial. While most of those who have accepted the theory of imitation-they cannot have reread the Idylls and the Song as wholes to persist in such a theory-have contended that Theocritus borrowed from Canticles, Graetz is convinced that the Hebrew poet must have known and imitated the Greek idyllist. The hero and heroine of the Song, he thinks, are not real shepherds; they are bucolic dilettanti, their shepherd-rôle is not serious. Whence, then, this superficial pastoral mise-en-scène? This critic, be it observed, places Canticles in the Ptolemaic age.

“In the then Judean world,” writes Graetz, “in the post-Exilic period, pastoral life was in no way so distinguished as to serve as a poetic foil. On the contrary, the shepherd was held in contempt. Agriculture was so predominant that large herds were considered a detriment; they spoiled the grain. Shepherds, too, were esteemed robbers, in that they allowed their cattle to graze on the lands of others. In Judea itself, in the post-Exilic period, there were few pasture-grounds for such nomads. Hence the song transfers the goats to Gilead, where there still existed grazing-places. In the Judean world the poet could find nothing to suggest the idealization of the shepherd. As he, nevertheless, represents the simple life, as opposed to courtly extravagance, through the figures of shepherds, he must have worked from a foreign model. But Theocritus was the first perfect pastoral poet. Through his influence shepherd songs became a favorite genre. He had no lack of imitators. Theocritus had full reason to contrast court and rustic life and idealize the latter, for in his native Sicily there were still shepherds in primitive simplicity. Under his influence and that of his followers, it became the fashion to represent the simple life in pastoral guise. The poet of Canticles–who wrote for cultured circles–was forced to make use of the convention. But, as though to excuse himself for taking a Judean shepherd as a representative of the higher virtues, he made his shepherd one who feeds among the lilies. It is not the rude neat-herds of Gilead or the Judean desert that hold such noble dialogues, but shepherds of delicate refinement. In a word, the whole eclogic character of Canticles appears to be copied from the Theocritan model,”

This contention would be conclusive, if it were based on demonstrable facts. But what is the evidence for it? Graetz offers none in his brilliant Commentary on Canticles. In proof of his startling view that, throughout post-Exilic times, the shepherd vocation was held in low repute among Israelites, he merely refers to an article in his Monatsschrift (1870, p. 483). When one turns to that, one finds that it concerns a far later period, the second Christian century, when the shepherd vocation had fallen to the grade of a small and disreputable trade. The vocation was then no longer a necessary corollary of the sacrificial needs of the Temple. While the altar of Jerusalem required its holocausts, the breeders of the animals would hardly have been treated as pariahs. In the century immediately following the destruction of the Temple, the shepherd began to fall in moral esteem, and in the next century he was included among the criminal categories. No doubt, too, as the tender of flocks was often an Arab raider, the shepherd had become a dishonest poacher on other men’s preserves. The attitude towards him was, further, an outcome of the deepening antagonism between the schoolmen and the peasantry. But even then it was by no means invariable. One of the most famous of Rabbis, Akiba, who died a martyr in 135 C.E., was not only a shepherd, but he was also the hero of the most romantic of Rabbinic love episodes.

At the very time when Graetz thinks that agriculture had superseded pastoral pursuits in general esteem, the Book of Ecclesiasticus was written. On the one side, Sirach, the author of this Apocryphal work, does not hesitate (ch. xxiv) to compare his beloved Wisdom to a garden, in the same rustic images that we find in Canticles; and, on the other side, he reveals none of that elevated appreciation of agriculture which Graetz would have us expect. Sirach (xxxvii. 25) asks sarcastically:

   How shall he become wise that holdeth the plough,
   That glorieth in the shaft of the goad:
   That driveth oxen, and is occupied with their labors,
   And whose talk is of bullocks?

Here it is the farmer that is despised, not a word is hinted against the shepherd. Sirach also has little fondness for commerce, and he denies the possibility of wisdom to the artisan and craftsman, “in whose ear is ever the noise of the hammer” (ib. v. 28). Sirach, indeed, is not attacking these occupations; he regards them all as a necessary evil, “without these cannot a city be inhabited” (v. 32). Our Jerusalem savant, as Dr. Schechter well terms him, of the third or fourth century B.C.E.; is merely illustrating his thesis, that

  The wisdom of the scribe cometh by opportunity of leisure;
  And he that hath little business shall become wise,

or, as he puts it otherwise, sought for in the council of the people, and chosen to sit in the seat of the judge. This view finds its analogue in a famous saying of the later Jewish sage Hillel, “Not everyone who increaseth business attains wisdom” (Aboth, ii. 5).

Undeniably, the shepherd lost in dignity in the periods of Jewish prosperity and settled city life. But, as George Adam Smith points out accurately, the prevailing character of Judea is naturally pastoral, with husbandry only incidental. “Judea, indeed, offers as good ground as there is in all the East for observing the grandeur of the shepherd’s character,"–his devotion, his tenderness, his opportunity of leisurely communion with nature.

The same characterization must have held in ancient times. And, after all, as Graetz himself admits, the poet of Canticles locates his shepherd in Gilead, the wild jasmine and other flowers of whose pastures (the “lilies" of the Song) still excite the admiration of travellers. Laurence Oliphant is lost in delight over the “anemones, cyclamens, asphodels, iris,” which burst on his view as he rode “knee-deep through the long, rich, sweet grass, abundantly studded with noble oak and terebinth trees,” and all this in Gilead. When, then, the Hebrew poet placed his shepherd and his flocks among the lilies, he was not trying to conciliate the courtly aristocrats of Jerusalem, or reconcile them to his Theocritan conventions; he was simply drawing his picture from life.

And as to the poetical idealization of the shepherd, how could a Hebrew poet fail to idealize him, under the ever-present charm of his traditional lore, of Jacob the shepherd-patriarch, Moses the shepherd-lawgiver, David the shepherd-king, and Amos the shepherd-prophet? So God becomes the Shepherd of Israel, not only explicitly in the early twenty-third Psalm, but implicitly also, in the late 119th. The same idealization is found everywhere in the Rabbinic literature as well as in the New Testament. Moses is the hero of the beautiful Midrashic parable of the straying lamb, which he seeks in the desert, and bears in his bosom (Exodus Rabba, ii). There is, on the other hand, something topsy-turvy in Graetz’s suggestion, that a Hebrew poet would go abroad for a conventional idealization of the shepherd character, just when, on his theory, pastoral conditions were scorned and lightly esteemed at home.

It was unnecessary, then, and inappropriate for the author of Canticles to go to Theocritus for the pastoral characters of his poem. But did he borrow its form and structure from the Greek? Nothing seems less akin than the slight dramatic interest of the idylls and the strong, if obscure, dramatic plot of Canticles. Budde has failed altogether to convince readers of the Song that no consistent story runs through it. It is, as has been said above, incredible that we should have before us nothing more than the disconnected ditties of a Syrian wedding-minstrel. Graetz knew nothing of the repertoire theory that has been based on Wetzstein’s discoveries of modern Syrian marriage songs and dances. Graetz believed, as most still do, that Canticles is a whole, not an aggregation of parts; yet he held that, not only the dramatis personae, but the very structure of the Hebrew poem must be traced to Theocritus. He appeals, in particular, to the second Idyll of the Greek poet, wherein the lady casts her magic spells in the vain hope of recovering the allegiance of her butterfly admirer. Obviously, there is no kinship between the facile Sirnaitha of the Idyll and the difficult Shulammith of Canticles: one the seeker, the other the sought; between the sensuous, unrestrained passion of the former and the self-sacrificing, continent affection of the latter. The nobler conceptions of love derive from the Judean maiden, not from the Greek paramour. But, argues Graetz with extraordinary ingenuity, Simaitha, recounting her unfortunate love-affair, introduces, as Shulammith does, dialogues between herself and her absent lover; she repeats what he said to her, and she to him; her monologue is no more a soliloquy than are the monologues of Shulammith, for both have an audience: here Thestylis, there the chorus of women. Simaitha’s second refrain, as she bewails her love, after casting the ingredients into the bowl, turning the magic wheel to draw home to her the man she loves, runs thus:

   Bethink thee, mistress Moon, whence came my love!

Graetz compares this to Shulammith’s refrain in Canticles:

  I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
      By the roes,
      And by the hinds of the field,
  That ye stir not up
  Nor awaken love,
      Until it please!

But in meaning the refrains have an absolutely opposite sense, and, more than that, they have an absolutely opposite function. In the Idyll the refrain is an accompaniment, in the Song it is an intermezzo. It occurs three times (ii. 7; iii. 5; and viii. 4), and like other repeated refrains in the Song concludes a scene, marks a transition in the situation. In Theocritus refrains are links, in the Song they are breaks in the chain.

Refrains are of the essence of lyric poetry as soon as anything like narrative enters into it. They are found throughout the lyrics of the Old Testament, the Psalms providing several examples. They belong to the essence of the Hebrew strophic system. And so it is with the other structural devices to which Graetz refers: reminiscent narrative, reported dialogues, scenes within the scene–all are common features (with certain differences) of the native Hebraic style, and they supply no justification for the suggestion of borrowing from non-Hebraic models.

There have, on the other side, been many, especially among older critics, who have contended that Theocritus owed his inspiration to Canticles. These have not been disturbed by the consideration, that, if he borrowed at all, he must assuredly have borrowed more than the most generous of them assert that he did. Recently an ingenious advocate of this view has appeared in Professor D.S. Margoliouth, all of whose critical work is rich in originality and surprises. In the first chapter of his “Lines of Defence of the Biblical Revelation,” he turns the tables on Graetz with quite entertaining thoroughness. Graetz was certain that no Hebrew poet could have drawn his shepherds from life; Margoliouth is equally sure that no Greek could have done so.

  “That this style [bucolic poetry], in which highly artificial
  performances are ascribed to shepherds and cowherds, should have
  originated in Greece, would be surprising; for the persons who followed
  these callings were ordinarily slaves, or humble hirelings, whom the
  classical writers treat with little respect. But from the time of
  Theocritus their profession becomes associated with poetic art. The
  shepherd’s clothes are donned by Virgil, Spenser, and Milton. The
  existence of the Greek translation of the Song of Solomon gives us the
  explanation of this fact. The Song of Solomon is a pastoral poem, but its
  pictures are true to nature. The father of the writer [Margoliouth
  believes in the Solomonic authorship of Canticles], himself both a king
  and a poet, had kept sheep. The combination of court life with country
  life, which in Theocritus seems so unnatural, was perfectly natural in
  pre-Exilic Palestine. Hence the rich descriptions of the country (ii. 12)
  beside the glowing descriptions of the king’s wealth (iii. 10).
  Theocritus can match both (Idylls vii and xv), but it may be doubted
  whether he could have found any Greek model for either.”

It is disturbing to one’s confidence in the value of Biblical criticism–both of the liberal school (Graetz) and the conservative (Margoliouth)–to come across so complete an antithesis. But things are not quite so bad as they look. Each critic is half right–Margoliouth in believing the pastoral pictures of Canticles true to Judean life, Graetz in esteeming the pastoral pictures of the Idylls true to Sicilian life. The English critic supports his theme with some philological arguments. He suggests that the vagaries of the Theocritan dialect are due to the fact that the Idyllist was a foreigner, whose native language was “probably Hebrew or Syriac.” Or perhaps Theocritus used the Greek translation of the Song, “unless Theocritus himself was the translator.” All of this is a capital jeu d’esprit, but it is scarcely possible that Canticles was translated into Greek so early as Theocritus, and, curiously enough, the Septuagint Greek version of the Song has less linguistic likeness to the phraseology of Theocritus than has the Greek version of the Song by a contemporary of Akiba, the proselyte Aquila. Margoliouth points out a transference by Theocritus of the word for daughter-in-law to the meaning bride (Idyll, xviii. 15). This is a Hebraism, he thinks. But expansions of meaning in words signifying relationship are common to all poets. Far more curious is a transference of this kind that Theocritus does not make. Had he known Canticles, he would surely have seized upon the Hebrew use of sister to mean beloved, a usage which, innocent and tender enough in the Hebrew, would have been highly acceptable to the incestuous patron of Theocritus, who actually married his full sister. Strange to say, the ancient Egyptian love poetry employs the terms brother and sister as regular denotations of a pair of lovers.

This last allusion to an ancient Egyptian similarity to a characteristic usage of Canticles leads to the remark, that Maspero and Spiegelberg have both published hieroglyphic poems of the xixth-xxth Dynasties, in which may be found other parallels to the metaphors and symbolism of the Hebrew Song. As earlier writers exaggerated the likeness of Canticles to Theocritus, so Maspero was at first inclined to exaggerate the affinity of Canticles to the old Egyptian amatory verse. It is not surprising, but it is saddening, to find that Maspero, summarizing his interesting discovery in 1883, used almost the same language as Lessing had used in 1777 with reference to Theocritus. Maspero, it is true, was too sane a critic to assert borrowing on the part of Canticles. But he speaks of the “same manner of speech, the same images, the same comparisons,” as Lessing does. Now if A = B, and B = C, then it follows that A = C. But in this case A does not equal C. There is no similarity at all between the Egyptian Songs and Theocritus. It follows that there is no essential likeness between Canticles and either of the other two. In his later books, Maspero has tacitly withdrawn his assertion of close Egyptian similarity, and it would be well if an equally frank withdrawal were made by the advocates of a close Theocritan parallel.

Some of the suggested resemblances between the Hebrew and Greek Songs are perhaps interesting enough to be worth examining in detail. In Idyll i. 24, the goatherd offers this reward to Thyrsis, if he will but sing the song of Daphnis:

                            I’ll give thee first
  To milk, ay, thrice, a goat; she suckles twins,
  Yet ne’ertheless can fill two milkpails full.

It can hardly be put forward as a remarkable fact that the poet should refer to so common an incident in sheep-breeding as the birth of twins. Yet the twins have been forced into the dispute, though it is hard to conceive anything more unlike than the previous quotation and the one that follows from Canticles (iv. 2):

   Thy teeth are like a flock of ewes,
       That are newly shorn,
       Which are come up from the washing,
   Whereof every one hath twins,
   And none is bereaved among them.

It is doubtful whether the Hebrew knows anything at all of the twin-bearing ewes; the penultimate line ought rather to be rendered (as in the margin of the Revised Version) “thy teeth ... which are all of them in pairs.” But, however rendered, the Hebrew means this. Theocritus speaks of the richness of the goat’s milk, for, after having fed her twins, she has still enough milk to fill two pails. In Canticles, the maiden’s teeth, spotlessly white, are smooth and even, “they run accurately in pairs, the upper corresponding to the lower, and none of them is wanting” (Harper).

Even more amusing is the supposed indebtedness on one side or the other in the reference made by Theocritus and Canticles to the ravages of foxes in vineyards. Theocritus has these beautiful lines in his first Idyll (lines 44 et seq.):

  Hard by that wave-beat sire a vineyard bends
  Beneath its graceful load of burnished grapes;
  A boy sits on the rude fence watching them.
  Near him two foxes: down the rows of grapes
  One ranging steals the ripest; one assails
  With wiles the poor lad’s scrip, to leave him soon
  Stranded and supperless. He plaits meanwhile
  With ears of corn a right fine cricket-trap,
  And fits it in a rush: for vines, for scrip,
  Little he cares, enamored of his toy.

How different the scene in Canticles (ii. 14 et seq.) that has been quoted above!

  Take us the foxes,
      The little foxes,
      That spoil the vineyards,
  For our vineyards are in blossom!

Canticles alludes to the destruction of the young shoots, Theocritus pictures the foxes devouring the ripe grapes. (Comp. also Idyll v. 112.) Foxes commit both forms of depredation, but the poets have seized on different aspects of the fact. Even were the aspects identical, it would be ridiculous to suppose that the Sicilian or Judean had been guilty of plagiarism. To-day, as of old, in the vineyards of Palestine you may see the little stone huts of the watchers on the lookout for the foxes, or jackals, whose visitations begin in the late spring and continue to the autumn. In Canticles we have a genuine fragment of native Judean folk-song; in Theocritus an equally native item of every season’s observation.

So with most of the other parallels. It is only necessary to set out the passages in full, to see that the similarity is insignificant in relation to the real differences. One would have thought that any poet dealing with rustic beauty might light on the fact that a sunburnt skin may be attractive. Yet Margoliouth dignifies this simple piece of observation into a theory! “The theory that swarthiness produced by sun-burning need not be disfiguring to a woman” is, Margoliouth holds, taken by Theocritus from Canticles. Graetz, as usual, reverses the relation: Canticles took it from Theocritus. But beyond the not very recondite idea that a sunburnt maid may still be charming, there is no parallel. Battus sings (Idyll x. 26 et seq.):

  Fair Bombyca! thee do men report
      Lean, dusk, a gipsy: I alone nut-brown.
  Violets and pencilled hyacinths are swart,
      Yet first of flowers they’re chosen for a crown.
  As goats pursue the clover, wolves the goat,
  And cranes the ploughman, upon thee I dote!

In Canticles the Shulammite protests (i. 5 et seq.):

  I am black but comely,
      O ye daughters of Jerusalem!
  [Black] as the tents of Kedar,
  [Comely] as the curtains of Solomon.
      Despise me not because I am swarthy,
      Because the sun hath scorched me.
  My mother’s sons were incensed against me,
  They made me the keeper of the vineyards,
  But mine own vineyard I have not kept!

Two exquisite lyrics these, of which it is hard to say which has been more influential as a key-note of later poetry. But neither of them is derived; each is too spontaneous, too fresh from the poet’s soul.

Before turning to one rather arrestive parallel, a word may be said on Graetz’s idea, that Canticles uses the expression “love’s arrows.” Were this so, the symbolism could scarcely be attributed to other than a Greek original. The line occurs in the noble panegyric of love cited before, with which Canticles ends, and in which the whole drama culminates. There is no room in this eulogy for Graetz’s rendering, “Her arrows are fiery arrows," nor can the Hebrew easily mean it. “The flashes thereof are flashes of fire,” is the best translation possible of the Hebrew line. There is nothing Greek in the comparison of love to fire, for fire is used in common Hebrew idiom to denote any powerful emotion (comp. the association of fire with jealousy in Ezekiel xxxix. 4).

Ewald, while refusing to connect the Idylls with Canticles, admitted that one particular parallel is at first sight forcible. It is the comparison of both Helen and Shulammith to a horse. Margoliouth thinks the Greek inexplicable without the Hebrew; Graetz thinks the Hebrew inexplicable without the Greek. In point of fact, the Hebrew and the Greek do not explain each other in the least. In the Epithalamium (Idyll xviii. 30) Theocritus writes,

  Or as in a chariot a mare of Thessalian breed,
  So is rose-red Helen, the glory of Lacedemon.

The exact point of comparison is far from clear, but it must be some feature of beauty or grace. Such a comparison, says Margoliouth, is extraordinary in a Greek poet; he must have derived it from a non-Greek source. But it has escaped this critic and all the commentaries on Theocritus, that just this comparison is perfectly natural for a Sicilian poet, familiar with several series of Syracusan coins of all periods, on which appear chariots with Nike driving horses of the most delicate beauty, fit figures to compare to a maiden’s grace of form. Theocritus, however, does not actually compare Helen to the horse; she beautifies or sets off Lacedemon as the horse sets off the chariot. Graetz, convinced that the figure is Greek, pronounces the Hebrew unintelligible without it. But it is quite appropriate to the Hebrew poet. Having identified his royal lover with Solomon, the poet was almost driven to make some allusion to Solomon’s famed exploit in importing costly horses and chariots from Egypt (I Kings x. 26-29). And so Canticles says (i. 9):

  I have compared thee, O my love,
  To a team of horses, in Pharaoh’s chariots.
  Thy cheeks are comely with rows of pearls,
  Thy neck with chains of gold.

The last couplet refers to the ornaments of the horse’s bridle and neck. Now, to the Hebrew the horse was almost invariably associated with war. The Shulammite is elsewhere (vi. 4) termed “terrible as an army with banners." In Theocritus the comparison is primarily to Helen’s beauty; in Canticles to the Shulammite’s awesomeness,

  Turn away thine eyes from me,
  For they have made me afraid.

These foregoing points of resemblance are the most significant that have been adduced. And they are not only seen to be each unimportant and inconclusive, but they have no cumulative effect. Taken as wholes, as was said above, the Idylls and Canticles are the poles asunder in their moral attitude towards love and in their general literary treatment of the theme. Of course, poets describing the spring will always speak of the birds; Greek and Hebrew loved flowers, Jew and Egyptian heard the turtle-dove as a harbinger of nature’s rebirth; sun and moon are everywhere types of warm and tender feelings; love is the converter of a winter of discontent into a glorious summer. In all love poems the wooer would fain embrace the wooed. And if she prove coy, he will tell of the menial parts he would be ready to perform, to continue unrebuked in her vicinity. Anacreon’s lover (xx) would be water in which the maid should bathe, and the Egyptian sighs, “Were I but the washer of her clothes, I should breathe the scent of her.” Or the Egyptian will cry, “O were I the ring on her finger, that I might be ever with her,” just as the Shulammite bids her beloved (though in another sense) “Place me as a seal on thine hand” (Cant. viii. 6). Love intoxicates like wine; the maiden has a honeyed tongue; her forehead and neck are like ivory. Nothing in all this goes beyond the identity of feeling that lies behind all poetical expression. But even in this realm of metaphor and image and symbolism, the North-Semitic wasf and even more the Hebraic parallels given in other parts of the Bible are closer far. Hosea xiv. 6-9 (with its lilies, its figure of Israel growing in beauty as the olive tree, “and his smell as Lebanon”), Proverbs (with its eulogy of faithful wedded love, its lips dropping honeycomb, its picture of a bed perfumed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon, the wife to love whom is to drink water from one’s own well, and she the pleasant roe and loving hind)–these and the royal Epithalamium (Ps. xlv), and other Biblical passages too numerous to quote, constitute the real parallels to the imagery and idealism of Canticles.

The only genuine resemblance arises from identity of environment. If Theocritus and the poet of Canticles were contemporaries, they wrote when there had been a somewhat sudden growth of town life both in Egypt and Palestine. Alexander the Great and his immediate successors were the most assiduous builders of new cities that the world has ever seen. The charms of town life made an easy conquest of the Orient. But pastoral life would not surrender without a struggle. It would, during this violent revolution in habits, reassert itself from time to time. We can suppose that after a century of experience of the delusions of urban comfort, the denizens of towns would welcome a reminder of the delights of life under the open sky. There would be a longing for something fresher, simpler, freer. At such a moment Theocritus, like the poet of Canticles, had an irresistible opportunity, and to this extent the Idylls and the Song are parallel.

But, on the other hand, when we pass from external conditions to intrinsic purport, nothing shows better the difference between Theocritus and Canticles than the fact that the Hebrew poem has been so susceptible of allegorization. Though the religious, symbolical interpretation of the Song be far from its primary meaning, yet in the Hebrew muse the sensuous and the mystical glide imperceptibly into one another. And this is true of Semitic poetry in general. It is possible to give a mystical turn to the quatrains of Omar Khayyam. But this can hardly be done with Anacreon. There is even less trace of Semitic mysticism in Theocritus than in Anacreon. Idylls and Canticles have some similarities. But these are only skin deep. In their heart of hearts the Greek and Judean poets are strangers, and so are their heroes and heroines.

No apology is needed for the foregoing lengthy discussion of the Song of Songs, seeing that it is incomparably the finest love poem in the Hebrew, or any other language. And this is true whatever be one’s opinion of its primary significance. It was no doubt its sacred interpretation that imparted to it so lasting a power over religious symbolism. But its human import also entered into its eternal influence. The Greek peasants of Macedonia still sing echoes from the Hebrew song. Still may be heard, in modern Greek love chants, the sweet old phrase, “black but comely,” a favorite phrase with all swarthy races; “my sister, my bride” remains as the most tender term of endearment. To a certain extent the service has been repaid. Some of the finest melodies to which the Synagogue hymns, or Piyyutim, are set, are the melodies to Achoth Ketannah, based on Canticles viii. 8, and Berach Dodi, a frequent phrase of the Hebrew book. The latter melody is similar to the finer melodies of the Levant; the former strikingly recalls the contemporary melodies of the Greek Archipelago. To turn a final glance at the other side of the indebtedness, we need only recall that Edmund Spenser’s famous Marriage Ode–the Epithalamium–the noblest marriage ode in the English language, and Milton’s equally famous description of Paradise in the fourth book of his Epic, owe a good deal to direct imitation of the Song of Songs. It is scarcely an exaggeration to assert that the stock-in-trade of many an erotic poet is simply the phraseology of the divine song which we have been considering so inadequately. It did not start as a repertoire; it has ended as one.

We must now make a great stride through the ages. Between the author of the Song of Songs and the next writer of inspired Hebrew love songs there stretches an interval of at least fourteen centuries. It is an oft-told story, how, with the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish desire for song temporarily ceased. The sorrow-laden heart could not sing of love. The disuse of a faculty leads to its loss; and so, with the cessation of the desire for song, the gift of singing became atrophied. But the decay was not quite complete. It is commonly assumed that post-Biblical Hebrew poetry revived for sacred ends; first hymns were written, then secular songs. But Dr. Brody has proved that this assumption is erroneous. In point of fact, the first Hebrew poetry after the Bible was secular not religious. We find in the pages of Talmud and Midrash relics and fragments of secular poetry, snatches of bridal songs, riddles, elegies, but less evidence of a religious poetry. True, when once the medieval burst of Hebrew melody established itself, the Hebrew hymns surpassed the secular Hebrew poems in originality and inspiration. But the secular verses, whether on ordinary subjects, or as addresses to famous men, and invocations on documents, at times far exceed the religious poems in range and number. And in many ways the secular poetry deserves very close attention. A language is not living when it is merely ecclesiastical. No one calls Sanskrit a living language because some Indian sects still pray in Sanskrit. But when Jewish poets took to using Hebrew again–if, indeed, they ever ceased to use it–as the language of daily life, as the medium for expressing their human emotions, then one can see that the sacred tongue was on the way to becoming once more what it is to-day in many parts of Palestine–the living tongue of men.

It must not be thought that in the Middle Ages there were two classes of Hebrew poets: those who wrote hymns and those who wrote love songs. With the exception of Solomon ibn Gabirol–a big exception, I admit–the best love songs were written by the best hymn writers. Even Ibn Gabirol, who, so far as we know, wrote no love songs, composed other kinds of secular poetry. One of the favorite poetical forms of the Middle Ages consisted of metrical letters to friends–one may almost assert that the best Hebrew love poetry is of this type–epistles of affection between man and man, expressing a love passing the love of woman. Ibn Gabirol wrote such epistles, but the fact remains that we know of no love verses from his hand; perhaps this confirms the tradition that he was the victim of an unrequited affection.

Thus the new form opens not with Ibn Gabirol, but with Samuel ibn Nagrela. He was Vizier of the Khalif, and Nagid, or Prince, of the Jews, in the eleventh century in Spain, and, besides Synagogue hymns and Talmudic treatises, he wrote love lyrics. The earlier hymns of Kalir have, indeed, a strong emotional undertone, but the Spanish school may justly claim to have created a new form. And this new form opens with Samuel the Nagid’s pretty verses on his “Stammering Love,” who means to deny, but stammers out assent. I cite the metrical German version of Dr. Egers, because I have found it impossible to reproduce (Dr. Egers is not very precise or happy in his attempt to reproduce) the puns of the original. The sense, however, is clear. The stammering maid’s words, being mumbled, convey an invitation, when they were intended to repulse her loving admirer.

  Wo ist mein stammelnd Lieb?
  Wo sie, die würz’ge, blieb?
  Verdunkelt der Mond der Sterne Licht,
  Ueberstrahlt den Mond ihr Angesicht!
  Wie Schwalbe, wie Kranich, die
  Bei ihrer Ankunft girren,
  Vertraut auf ihren Gott auch sie
  In ihrer Zunge Irren.

  Mir schmollend rief sie “Erzdieb,"
  Hervor doch haucht sie “Herzdieb"–
  Hin springe ich zum Herzlieb.
  “Ehrloser!” statt zu wehren,
  “Her, Loser!” lässt sie hören;
  Nur rascher dem Begehren
  Folgt’ ich mit ihr zu kosen,
  Die lieblich ist wie Rosen.

This poem deserves attention, as it is one of the first, if not actually the very first, of its kind. The Hebrew poet is forsaking the manner of the Bible for the manner of the Arabs. One point of resemblance between the new Hebrew and the Arabic love poetry is obscured in the translation. In the Hebrew of Samuel the Nagid the terms of endearment, applied though they are to a girl, are all in the masculine gender. This, as Dr. Egers observes, is a common feature of the Arabic and Persian love poetry of ancient and modern times. An Arab poet will praise his fair one’s face as “bearded" with garlands of lilies. Hafiz describes a girl’s cheeks as roses within a net of violets, the net referring to the beard. Jehudah Halevi uses this selfsame image, and Moses ibn Ezra and the rest also employ manly figures of speech in portraying beautiful women. All this goes to show how much, besides rhyme and versification, medieval Hebrew love poetry owed to Arabic models. Here, for instance, is an Arabic poem, whose author, Radhi Billah, died in 940, that is, before the Spanish Jewish poets began to write of love. To an Arabic poet Laila replaces the Lesbia of Catullus and the Chloe of the Elizabethans. This tenth century Arabic poem runs thus:

  Laila, whene’er I gaze on thee,
    My altered cheeks turn pale;
  While upon thine, sweet maid, I see
    A deep’ning blush prevail.

  Laila, shall I the cause impart
    Why such a change takes place?–
  The crimson stream deserts my heart
    To mantle on thy face.

Here we have fully in bloom, in the tenth century, those conceits which meet us, not only in the Hebrew poets of the next two centuries, but also in the English poets of the later Elizabethan age.

It is very artificial and scarcely sincere, but also undeniably attractive. Or, again, in the lines of Zoheir, addressed by the lover to a messenger that has just brought tidings from the beloved,

  Oh! let me look upon thine eyes again,
  For they have looked upon the maid I love,

we have, in the thirteenth century, the very airs and tricks of the cavalier poets. In fact, it cannot be too often said that love poetry, like love itself, is human and eternal, not of a people and an age, but of all men and all times. Though fashions change in poetry as in other ornament, still the language of love has a long life, and age after age the same conceits and terms of endearment meet us. Thus Hafiz has these lines,

  I praise God who made day and night:
  Day thy countenance, and thy hair the night.

Long before him the Hebrew poet Abraham ibn Ezra had written,

  On thy cheeks and the hair of thy head
  I will bless: He formeth light and maketh darkness.

In the thirteenth century the very same witticism meets us again, in the Hebrew Machberoth of Immanuel. But obviously it would be an endless task to trace the similarities of poetic diction between Hebrew and other poets: suffice it to realize that such similarities exist.

Such similarities did not, however, arise only from natural causes. They were, in part at all events, due to artificial compulsion. It is well to bear this in mind, for the recurrence of identical images in Hebrew love poem after love poem impresses a Western reader as a defect. To the Oriental reader, on the contrary, the repetition of metaphors seemed a merit. It was one of the rules of the game. In his “Literary History of Persia” Professor Browne makes this so clear that a citation from him will save me many pages. Professor Browne (ii, 83) analyzes Sharafu’d-Din Rami’s rhetorical handbook entitled the “Lover’s Companion.” The “Companion" legislates as to the similes and figures that may be used in describing the features of a girl.

“It contains nineteen chapters, treating respectively of the hair, the forehead, the eyebrows, the eyes, the eyelashes, the face, the down on lips and cheeks, the mole or beauty-spot, the lips, the teeth, the mouth, the chin, the neck, the bosom, the arm, the fingers, the figure, the waist, and the legs. In each chapter the author first gives the various terms applied by the Arabs and Persians to the part which he is discussing, differentiating them when any difference in meaning exists; then the metaphors used by writers in speaking of them, and the epithets applied to them, the whole copiously illustrated by examples from the poets.”

No other figures of speech would be admissible. Now this “Companion" belongs to the fourteenth century, and the earlier Arabic and Persian poetry was less fettered. But principles of this kind clearly affected the Hebrew poets, and hence there arises a certain monotony in the songs, especially when they are read in translation. The monotony is not so painfully prominent in the originals. For the translator can only render the substance, and the substance is often more conventional than the nuances of form, the happy turns and subtleties, which evaporate in the process of translation, leaving only the conventional sediment behind.

This is true even of Jehudah Halevi, though in him we hear a genuinely original note. In his Synagogue hymns he joins hands with the past, with the Psalmists; in his love poems he joins hands with the future, with Heine. His love poetry is at once dainty and sincere. He draws indiscriminately on Hebrew and Arabic models, but he is no mere imitator. I will not quote much from him, for his best verses are too familiar. Those examples which I must present are given in a new and hitherto unpublished translation by Mrs. Lucas.

Marriage Song

  Fair is my dove, my loved one,
    None can with her compare:
  Yea, comely as Jerusalem,
    Like unto Tirzah fair.

  Shall she in tents unstable
    A wanderer abide,
  While in my heart awaits her
    A dwelling deep and wide?

  The magic of her beauty
    Has stolen my heart away:
  Not Egypt’s wise enchanters
    Held half such wondrous sway.

  E’en as the changing opal
    In varying lustre glows,
  Her face at every moment
    New charms and sweetness shows.

  White lilies and red roses
    There blossom on one stem:
  Her lips of crimson berries
    Tempt mine to gather them.

  By dusky tresses shaded
    Her brow gleams fair and pale,
  Like to the sun at twilight,
    Behind a cloudy veil.

  Her beauty shames the day-star,
    And makes the darkness light:
  Day in her radiant presence
    Grows seven times more bright

  This is a lonely lover!
    Come, fair one, to his side,
  That happy be together
    The bridegroom and the bride!

  The hour of love approaches
    That shall make one of twain:
  Soon may be thus united
    All Israel’s hosts again!


To her sleeping Love

  Awake, my fair, my love, awake,
    That I may gaze on thee!
  And if one fain to kiss thy lips
    Thou in thy dreams dost see,
  Lo, I myself then of thy dream
    The interpreter will be!


  Ophrah shall wash her garments white
    In rivers of my tears,
  And dry them in the radiance bright
    That shines when she appears.
  Thus will she seek no sun nor water nigh,
  Her beauty and mine eyes will all her needs supply.

These lovers’ tears often meet us in the Hebrew poems. Ibn Gabirol speaks of his tears as fertilizing his heart and preserving it from crumbling into dust. Mostly, however, the Hebrew lover’s tears, when they are not tokens of grief at the absence of the beloved, are the involuntary confession of the man’s love. It is the men who must weep in these poems. Charizi sings of the lover whose heart succeeds in concealing its love, whose lips contrive to maintain silence on the subject, but his tears play traitor and betray his affection to all the world. Dr. Sulzbach aptly quotes parallels to this fancy from Goethe and Brentano.

This suggestion of parallelism between a medieval Hebrew poet and Goethe must be my excuse for an excursion into what seems to me one of the most interesting examples of the kind. In one of his poems Jehudah Halevi has these lines:


  So we must be divided! Sweetest, stay!
    Once more mine eyes would seek thy glance’s light!
  At night I shall recall thee; thou, I pray,
    Be mindful of the days of our delight!
  Come to me in my dreams, I ask of thee,
  And even in thy dreams be gentle unto me!

  If thou shouldst send me greeting in the grave,
    The cold breath of the grave itself were sweet;
  Oh, take my life! my life, ’tis all I have,
    If I should make thee live I do entreat!
  I think that I shall hear, when I am dead,
    The rustle of thy gown, thy footsteps overhead.

It is this last image that has so interesting a literary history as to tempt me into a digression. But first a word must be said of the translation and the translator. The late Amy Levy made this rendering, not from the Hebrew, but from Geiger’s German with obvious indebtedness to Emma Lazarus. So excellent, however, was Geiger’s German that Miss Levy got quite close to the meaning of the original, though thirty-eight Hebrew lines are compressed into twelve English. Literally rendered, the Hebrew of the last lines runs:

  Would that, when I am dead, to mine ears may rise
  The music of the golden bell upon thy skirts.

This image of the bell is purely Hebraic; it is, of course, derived from the High Priest’s vestments. Jehudah Halevi often employs it to express melodious proclamation of virtue, or the widely-borne voice of fame. Here he uses it in another context, and though the image of the bell is not repeated, yet some famous lines from Tennyson’s “Maud” at once come into one’s mind:

  She is coming, my own, my sweet;
    Were it ever so light a tread,
  My heart would hear her and beat,
    Were it earth in an earthy bed;
  My dust would hear her and beat,
    Had I lain for a century dead;
  Would start and tremble under her feet,
    And blossom in purple and red.

It is thus that the lyric poetry of one age affects, or finds its echo in, that of another, but in this particular case it is, of course, a natural thought that true love must survive the grave. There is a mystical union between the two souls, which death cannot end. Here, again, we meet the close connection between love and mysticism, which lies at the root of all deep love poetry. But we must attend to the literary history of the thought for a moment longer. Moses ibn Ezra, though more famous for his Synagogue hymns, had some lyric gifts of a lighter touch, and he wrote love songs on occasion. In one of these the poet represents a dying wife as turning to her husband with the pathetic prayer, “Remember the covenant of our youth, and knock at the door of my grave with a hand of love.”

I will allude only to one other parallel, which carries us to a much earlier period. Here is an Arab song of Taubah, son of Al-Humaiyir, who lived in the seventh century. It must be remembered that it was an ancient Arabic folk-idea that the spirits of the dead became owls.

  Ah, if but Laila would send me a greeting down
    of grace, though between us lay the dust and flags of stone,
  My greeting of joy should spring in answer, or there should cry
    toward her an owl, ill bird that shrieks in the gloom of graves.

C.J.L. Lyall, writing of the author of these lines, Taubah, informs us that he was the cousin of Laila, a woman of great beauty. Taubah had loved her when they were children in the desert together, but her father refused to give her to him in marriage. He led a stormy life, and met his death in a fight during the reign of Mu’awiyah. Laila long survived him, but never forgot him or his love for her. She attained great fame as a poetess, and died during the reign of ’Abd-al-Malik, son of Marwan, at an advanced age. “A tale is told of her death in which these verses figure. She was making a journey with her husband when they passed by the grave of Taubah. Laila, who was travelling in a litter, cried, By God! I will not depart hence till I greet Taubah. Her husband endeavored to dissuade her, but she would not hearken; so at last he allowed her. And she had her camel driven up the mound on which the tomb was, and said, Peace to thee, O Taubah! Then she turned her face to the people and said, I never knew him to speak falsely until this day. What meanest thou? said they. Was it not he, she answered, who said

  Ah, if but Laila would send a greeting down
    of grace, though between us lay the dust and flags of stone,
  My greeting of joy should spring in answer, or there should cry
    toward her an owl, ill bird that shrieks in the gloom of graves.

Nay, but I have greeted him, and he has not answered as he said. Now, there was a she-owl crouching in the gloom by the side of the grave; and when it saw the litter and the crowd of people, it was frightened and flew in the face of the camel. And the camel was startled and cast Laila headlong on the ground; and she died that hour, and was buried by the side of Taubah.”

The fascination of such parallels is fatal to proportion in an essay such as this. But I cannot honestly assert that I needed the space for other aspects of my subject. I have elsewhere fully described the Wedding Odes which Jehudah Halevi provided so abundantly, and which were long a regular feature of every Jewish marriage. But, after the brilliant Spanish period, Hebrew love songs lose their right to high literary rank. Satires on woman’s wiles replace praises of her charms. On the other hand, what of inspiration the Hebrew poet felt in the erotic field beckoned towards mysticism. In the paper which opens this volume, I have written sufficiently and to spare of the woman-haters. At Barcelona, in the age of Zabara, Abraham ibn Chasdai did the best he could with his misogynist material, but he could get no nearer to a compliment than this, “Her face has the shimmer of a lamp, but it burns when held too close” ("Prince and Dervish,” ch. xviii). The Hebrew attacks on women are clever, but superficial; they show no depth of insight into woman’s character, and are far less effective than Pope’s satires.

The boldest and ablest Hebrew love poet of the satirical school is Immanuel of Rome, a younger contemporary of Dante. He had wit, but not enough of it to excuse his ribaldry. He tells many a light tale of his amours; a pretty face is always apt to attract him and set his pen scribbling. As with the English dramatists of the Restoration, virtue and beauty are to Immanuel almost contradictory terms. For the most part, wrinkled old crones are the only decent women in his pages. His pretty women have morals as easy as the author professes. In the second of his Machberoth he contrasts two girls, Tamar and Beriah; on the one he showers every epithet of honor, at the other he hurls every epithet of abuse, only because Tamar is pretty, and Beriah the reverse. Tamar excites the love of the angels, Beriah’s face makes even the devil fly. This disagreeable pose of Immanuel was not confined to his age; it has spoilt some of the best work of W.S. Gilbert. The following is Dr. Chotzner’s rendering of one of Immanuel’s lyrics. He entitles it

Paradise and Hell

  At times in my spirit I fitfully ponder,
    Where shall I pass after death from this light;
  Do Heaven’s bright glories await me, I wonder,
    Or Lucifer’s kingdom of darkness and night?

  In the one, though ’tis perhaps of ill reputation,
    A crowd of gay damsels will sit by my side;
  But in Heaven there’s boredom and mental starvation,
    To hoary old men and old crones I’ll be tied.

  And so I will shun the abodes of the holy,
    And fly from the sky, which is dull, so I deem:
  Let hell be my dwelling; there is no melancholy,
    Where love reigns for ever and ever supreme.

Immanuel, it is only just to point out, occasionally draws a worthier character. In his third Machbereth he tells of a lovely girl, who is intelligent, modest, chaste, coy, and difficult, although a queen in beauty; she is simple in taste, yet exquisite in poetical feeling and musical gifts. The character is the nearest one gets in Hebrew to the best heroines of the troubadours. Immanuel and she exchange verses, but the path of flirtation runs rough. They are parted, she, woman-like, dies, and he, man-like, sings an elegy. Even more to Immanuel’s credit is his praise of his own wife. She has every womanly grace of body and soul. On her he showers compliments from the Song of Songs and the Book of Proverbs. If this be the true man revealed, then his light verses of love addressed to other women must be, as I have hinted, a mere pose. It may be that his wife read his verses, and that his picture of her was calculated to soothe her feelings when reading some other parts of his work. If she did read them, she found only one perfect figure of womanliness in her husband’s poems, and that figure herself. But on the whole one is inclined to think that Immanuel’s braggartism as to his many love affairs is only another aspect of the Renaissance habit, which is exemplified so completely in the similar boasts of Benvenuto Cellini.

Be this as it may, it is not surprising to find that in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim, ch. 317, Section 16), the poems of Immanuel are put upon the Sabbath Index. It is declared unlawful to read them on Saturdays, and also on week-days, continues the Code with gathering anger. Those who copy them, still more those who print them, are declared sinners that make others to sin. I must confess that I am here on the side of the Code. Immanuel’s Machberoth are scarcely worthy of the Hebrew genius.

There has been, it may be added, a long struggle against Hebrew love songs. Maimonides says ("Guide,” iii. 7): “The gift of speech which God gave us to help us learn and teach and perfect ourselves–this gift of speech must not be employed in doing what is degrading and disgraceful. We must not imitate the songs and tales of ignorant and lascivious people. It may be suitable to them, but it is not fit for those who are bidden, Ye shall be a holy nation.” In 1415 Solomon Alami uses words on this subject that will lead me to my last point. Alami says, “Avoid listening to love songs which excite the passions. If God has graciously bestowed on you the gift of a sweet voice, use it in praising Him. Do not set prayers to Arabic tunes, a practice which has been promoted to suit the taste of effeminate men.”

But if this be a crime, then the worst offender was none other than the famous Israel Najara. In the middle of the sixteenth century he added some of its choicest lyrics to the Hebrew song-book. The most popular of the table hymns (Zemiroth) are his. He was a mystic, filled with a sense of the nearness of God. But he did not see why the devil should have all the pretty tunes. So he deliberately wrote religious poems in metres to suit Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Spanish, and Italian melodies, his avowed purpose being to divert the young Jews of his day from profane to sacred song. But these young Jews must have been exigent, indeed, if they failed to find in Najara’s sacred verses enough of love and passion. Not only was he, like Jehudah Halevi, a prolific writer of Wedding Odes, but in his most spiritual hymns he uses the language of love as no Hebrew poet before or after him has done. Starting with the assumption that the Song of Songs was an allegory of God’s espousal with the bride Israel, Najara did not hesitate to put the most passionate words of love for Israel into God’s mouth. He was strongly attacked, but the saintly mystic Isaac Luria retorted that Najara’s hymns were listened to with delight in Heaven–and if ever a man had the right to speak of Heaven it was Luria. And Hebrew poetry has no need to be ashamed of the passionate affection poured out by these mystic poets on another beloved, the Queen Sabbath.

This is not the place to speak of the Hebrew drama and of the form which the love interest takes in it. Woman, at all events, is treated far more handsomely in the dramas than in the satires. The love scenes of the Hebrew dramatists are pure to coldness. These dramas began to flourish in the eighteenth century; Luzzatto was by no means an unworthy imitator of Guarini. Sometimes the syncretism of ideas in Hebrew plays is sufficiently grotesque. Samuel Romanelli, who wrote in Italy at the era of the French Revolution, boldly introduces Greek mythology. It may be that in the Spanish period Hebrew poets introduced the muses under the epithet “daughters of Song.” But with Romanelli, the classical machinery is more clearly audible. The scene of his drama is laid in Cyprus; Venus and Cupid figure in the action. Romanelli gives a moral turn to his mythology, by interposing Peace to stay the conflict between Love and Fame. Ephraim Luzzatto, at the same period, tried his hand, not unsuccessfully, at Hebrew love sonnets.

Love songs continued to be written in Hebrew in the nineteenth century, and often see the light in the twentieth. But I do not propose to deal with these. Recent new-Hebrew poetry has shown itself strongest in satire and elegy. Its note is one of anger or of pain. Shall we, however, say of the Hebrew race that it has lost the power to sing of love? Has it grown too old, too decrepid?

  And said I that my limbs were old,
  And said I that my blood was cold,
  And that my kindly fire was fled,
  And my poor withered heart was dead,
  And that I might not sing of love?

Heine is the answer. But Heine did not write in Hebrew, and those who have so far written in Hebrew are not Heines. It is, I think, vain to look to Europe for a new outburst of Hebrew love lyrics. In the East, and most of all in Palestine, where Hebrew is coming to its own again, and where the spring once more smiles on the eyes of Jewish peasants and shepherds, there may arise another inspired singer to give us a new Song of Songs in the language of the Bible. But we have no right to expect it. Such a rare thing of beauty cannot be repeated. It is a joy forever, and a joy once for all.


Preface  •  “The Book of Delight”  •  A Visit to Hebron  •  The Solace of Books  •  Medieval Wayfaring  •  The Fox’s Heart  •  “Marriages Are Made in Heaven”  •  Hebrew Love Songs  •  A Handful of Curiosities  •  Notes