WIT committee member, Elizabeth Clayton, examines how Song of Songs celebrates female sexuality and thereby offers a powerful source of inspiration.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine” (Song of Songs 1:2). This line is maybe one of my favourite lines of poetry ever written. It is spoken by the female character in the Song of Songs (we assume that she is female because of the gendered Hebrew pronouns used), presumably to her (male) lover. This poem is a celebration of love, sex, and desire… (and in my opinion, not an allegory about God and Israel or Jesus and the Church...sorry not sorry Origen).
There are long sections of the poem which describe the bodies of the characters—often thought of as being similar to wasfs, which were part of Arabic marriage rites. In these poems, the speaker celebrates the beauty of the other character. The wasf structure emphasises the totality or wholeness of the object’s beauty through systematic description of each individual part. The male character describes his lover’s body parts using various agricultural or natural images, and concludes that his beloved is “altogether beautiful…there is no flaw in [her]” (4:7). One of the most important messages of the poem is that the woman is beautiful, and that this is a good thing. She is sure of her beauty—she calls herself “a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley” (2:1). She is comfortable in her sexuality—“let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits” (4:16)—and this too is celebrated. She is unashamed in her own descriptions of her lover: “his mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether lovely. This is my lover, this is my friend” (5:16).
Her beauty, and her awareness of the power her beauty gives her are very inspiring to me. In a poem that was most likely written by a man, this female character has risen above the limitations of her medium to convey the message that the female body (even if it looks like “a flock of goats,” 4:1) is beautiful and should be celebrated. She can teach us to be confident in our own bodies, to be sure of our own beauty, and to know the power of desire. There is of course much more to womxn than just physical appearance, but the Song is a beautiful and intimate reminder that it is good to celebrate and be confident of our beautiful bodies.
Writer: Elizabeth Clayton of Keble College
Editor and illustrator: Mary Whittingdale of Mansfield College