A Treasury of Great Poems: English and American

By Louis Untermeyer | Go to book overview

I
The Bible

THE SONG OF SONGS

NO POEM has had a more curious or confused history than THE SONG OF SONGS. There it is, a divine irrelevance, a passionately living, frankly sexual love poem in the midst of Holy Writ. The surcharged images and burning apostrophes follow the grim cynicisms of ECCLESIASTES and precede the rapt prophecies of ISAIAH. Never has there been a more magnificently inappropriate setting for a collection of amorous lyric poems.

Whether or not the all-too-brief set of eight chapters can be called a collection of lyrics has always been a matter of acrid dispute. The unpretentious little book has been a source of endless debates. Only a work so human and so supernal, so simple and so timeless, so curiously local and so deeply universal, could survive the war of scholarly dialectics, the embattled exegeses, the fiercely opposed interpretations.

The common form of the title plunges us into mystery. THE SONG OF SONGS, WHICH IS SOLOMON'S. Why Solomon's? Was Solomon the author of the work? If he was not its author, was he its hero, the kingly suitor, the traditional great lover? Impartial scholars were quick to point out that the songs are Solomon's only by association; that the allusions to the monarch are few and vague; and that the verbal mixtures indicate a much later period in history than that of the idealized ruler and builder.

It is generally agreed that the name of Solomon was added to give authority to this lyrical outpouring. But there never has been unanimity of opinion as to the full meaning of the work. There are

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A Treasury of Great Poems: English and American
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgments v
  • In Praise of Poetry vii
  • Contents ix
  • Preface xlvii
  • I - The Bible 1
  • II - Foundations of the English Spirit 61
  • III - The Popular Ballad 123
  • IV - Early Songs of Unknown Authorship 163
  • V - Toward the Golden Age 175
  • VI - Elizabethan Songs of Unknown Authorship 253
  • VII - William Shakespeare [1564-1616] 271
  • VIII - Anatomy of the World 319
  • IX - Gallants, Puritans, and Divines 389
  • X - The Rise and Fall of Elegance 503
  • XI - Pure Vision, Pure Song 595
  • XII - The Spirit of Revolution and Romance 633
  • XIII - Faith, Doubt, and Democracy 777
  • XIV - Challenge to Tradition 889
  • XV - The World of the Twentieth Century 1023
  • Acknowledgments 1229
  • Sources of Reference 1233
  • Index 1235
  • Index of First Lines 1265
  • A Note about the Author *
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