(Originally written November 25, 2009)
In contrasting Song of Songs in the Bible to T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland, the nature of desire or passion and its difference from love will be considered in an ancient-versus-modern setting. It may be quite a surprise to many when reading the ancient text Song of Songs, that the strong language and heady insinuations could be found in none other than the Bible. However, Song of Songs explicitly states in celebrated fashion the passion, desire, love, and intimacy between two people.
The two speakers describe each other and their surroundings in terms of lush vegetation, beautiful flowers, strong implements, fragrant smells, and riches (consequently, these are things modern people find romantic as well),
“Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with chains of gold…a bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me” (Solomon, 97).
While the poem is exciting and will bring a blush at certain points, it is about more than just sex. There is an intimacy implied between the two lovers not necessarily inherent in the sexual act, which is where the line between desire/passion and real love is. The woman in Song of Songs is detailed even to her teeth and nose, and unlike other ancient works (such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Homer’s The Odyssey, and Catulus’s love poem), the language proves there is desire and passion, but more than that-the lady is cherished.
“A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse…thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits…with all the chief spices: a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon” (Solomon, 98).
Nor do the two lovers attempt to conceal their love for one another. The woman actively searches for her man through city streets, and presents him to her mother,
“The watchmen who go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?…I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me” (Solomon, 97).
At the other end of the spectrum in describing the nature of desire or passion and its difference from love, is T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Far from examining how two ideal lovers see each other, The Wasteland looks at modern-day London, England and its extreme lack of love. The horrors of sterility, loneliness, dryness, death, affairs, and rape abound in this depressing poem of hectic, gaudy, and false big-city life.
“Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit/There is not even silence in the mountains/But dry sterile thunder without rain/There is not even solitude in the mountains/But red sullen faces sneer and snarl/From doors of mudcracked houses” (Eliot, 2089).
In The Wasteland, rather than leading to intimacy, love-less sex leads to death both emotionally and physically in the form of abortions, “It’s them pills I took, to bring it off…the chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same” (Eliot, 2083). Passion or desire becomes lust wherein the “lovers” have no feelings towards each other once the act of sex is over,
“She turns and looks a moment in the glass, Hardly aware of her departed lover…’Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over’” (Eliot, 2086).
As opposed to the Song of Songs in which the lovers could not bear to be parted and communicate eagerly back and forth, Eliot paints a very different picture, of a one-sided conversation vacillating between begging and demanding,
“Stay with me. Speak to me. Why do you never speak…I never know what you are thinking. Think” (Eliot, 2082).
A passion and desire-turned lust begets rape, which begets an abortion in the first section of Eliot’s poem, “Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither Living nor dead, and I knew nothing” (Eliot, 2080). “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?…Oh keep the Dog far hence…Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!” (Eliot, 2081).
The vast differences between the ancient Biblical poem, Song of Songs and it’s to-the-point descriptions of true lovers in love (along with all the heady excitement therein), compared to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland where desire and lust reign without love in a dry, ugly landscape; serves as a reminder of the thin line between lust and love and their subsequent outcomes.
Eliot, T.S. “The Wasteland.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Volume F: Second Edition.Sarah Lawall, General Editor. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002. 2079-2091.
The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Volume A: Second Edition. Sarah Lawall, General Editor. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002.
Solomon. “The Song of Songs.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Volume A: Second Edition.Sarah Lawall, General Editor. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002. 96-100.