So, a post about Valentines. If you’re tempted to stop reading already, I’d have sympathy! For while a lucky few seem to relish it, it’s striking for how many people the ‘day of love’ seems to be a day of dread. It’s like the EU referendum split, or John Bercow: a Marmite day (not a traditional romantic delicacy I grant you).
While I naturally side with those who don’t want to feel boxed and pressured into making romantic gestures on THIS particular day of the year, and while I also dislike the sense of exclusion some feel….let me try and bring something positive to the table.
So… is there an antidote to the annual schmaltz around flowers, chocolates, exorbitant romantic dinners – and inveterate quantities of red hearts? If I suggested a lengthy mid-eastern poem composed around 965BC – even if it is about love – you might wonder what they’d put in my Valentine spritzer. Even more so if you heard it’s in the Bible, Old Testament no less; and even more so if you learned it was written by, or at least features, a chap (King Solomon) who had 700 wives and 300 concubines (there’s a guy who knew how to make a gal feel special!).
But bear with me, for this poem, Song of Songs, offers a pertinent riposte to the artifice of Valentine packaging that commercial western society persistently foists upon us.
For starters, there’s some exceedingly rich imagery surrounding this tale of a young man and woman in love – largely drawn from nature and rustic life. Her hair is described as being ‘like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead’; her teeth ‘like a flock of sheep just shorn’. If she were around today, she’d be in line for some shampoo and toothpaste ads. ‘Your breasts are like fawns, twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies’. It’s right there, I promise: chapter 4 verse 5. Hold the front page: there are breasts in the bible!
And there’s a choice pick of nice things said about the fella too: ‘his hair is wavy and black as a raven…his body is like polished ivory decorated with sapphires’. Move over Aidan Turner. There’s a veritable embarrassment of riches when it comes to sensuous language: ‘my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with flowing myrrh…’ Language like luxurious chocolate. Pay attention, card writers.
The intensity of nature imagery reminds me of a modern media phenomenon that’s almost the polar opposite of Valentine schmaltz, and that we respond to very differently: spectacular natural history programmes like the recent ‘Planet Earth 2’. Nature has a unique power to break down our cynical defences and invite us to awe and wonder. It’s enthralling, embracing and inclusive. Love expressed in such terms has this power too.
We can’t put down ‘Song of Songs’ (you may not want to now anyway) without noting that in Christian tradition it has also been interpreted as illustrative of the love between Christ and the Church. For the sceptic, such an insight might just sound as excluding as Valentines can do for singles. But wait. Slow down. Allow the poetry to work on you. There’s just a chance this love, that’s described as better than wine (and presumably roses and chocolates too), might begin to work its magic on you too. Happy Valentines.