Review of Fiona Black, The artifice of love: Grotesque bodies and the song of songs. London and New York: T & T Clarke/Continuum, 2009.
Date of this Version
What do we presume when we read or hear a love poem? We presume that the depiction of the lovers will be flattering, surely? Even if the beloved is not described as beautiful by our own cultural standards or perhaps even those of the poet’s, the reader understands that the lover-poet will ultimately look beyond those flaws and still convey something special, indeed beautiful, and this will be the truth, not some false flattery. It is not simply that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; when it comes to love, it quite legitimately can be the case that love is blind. Nevertheless, readers of the Song of Songs have long been perplexed by the poetic rendering of the lovers bodies. Such readers presume that, given that this is a love song, the overall picture has to be a flattering one. Each lover, in seeking to represent their beloved’s body, must surely be striving for an image of beauty, or at least to convey the beauty that (only) they see. And yet, the text time and again proffers only curious, even absurd imagery that confounds any real sense of understanding on the part of the reader. Quite simply, we are not really convinced. As Fiona Black points out in her superb book The Artifice of Love: Grotesque Bodies and the Song of Songs, biblical critics are troubled by these strange bodies because they jar with the ideals we expect to encounter when we read or hear a love poem. Furthermore, such critics have gone to great lengths to smooth over these problematic descriptions. There is a long history of various readers’ attempts to untangle the often mysterious images used to convey the “beauty” of the beloved (a long neck is one thing, but a neck like the tower of Babylon? Or, breasts like gazelles?).
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