A Marriage of Equality
By Abby Pittman
Oct. 30, 2014
My Beloved is mine and I am his. (Song of Songs 2:16)
Line after line the Song of Songs explores the passion between two lovers as they discover their love for each other and bask in the pure joy of a true partnership. Unlike most other relationships in the Bible, the Song of Songs shows a partnership of equality, where both partners are allowed to feel passion and each has a turn to speak. As one of the most equal descriptions of a relationship within the Bible, the Song shows the ideal relationship that is available to all if there is equality, respect, and passion. Inspiring many poets in the Renaissance era, the poet whose work is most similar to The Song is Edmund Spenser; though Francesco Petrarch, William Shakespeare, and Katherine Phillips also explore the idea of an ideal relationship within their poetry. The Song of Songs portrays an ideal and equal relationship, and each of these poets explore what it takes in a relationship to get to this ideal; though in vastly different ways. Spenser comes closest to mimicking this relationship through his Poetry, while the rest are lacking key traits; Petrarch lacks mutuality within his relationship, Shakespeare lacks the ability to view a woman as his equal, and Phillips—though she comes closest—lacks passion.
Kicking off this era of love poetry was Francesco Petrarch who wrote over 300 sonnets to just one woman: Laura. The love of his life, who never even spoke a word to him, inspired some of the most beautiful and devotional poetry of the era. By putting this woman on a pedestal, Petrarch does something that before hadn’t been seen in literature; he reverses the role of power within the relationship, releasing all of the power to her. His elevation of her is clear in all of his sonnets, for example: “In what divine ideal, what lofty sphere/ Is found the pattern from which Nature made/ That face so fair wherein she might parade/ Proof of her heavenly power to mortals here?” (CLIX: Sonnet 126). Laura becomes a goddess in his eyes, and his devotion to her is completely religious. This devotion and worship to his (fantasized) partner is similar to the devotion seen in The Song of Songs; “show me your face,/ let me hear your voice;/ for your voice is sweet/ and your face is beautiful.” (Song of Songs 2:14). However, it is lacking one very important characteristic: mutuality. Without mutuality, and a return of this love, it is impossible to have an equal partnership, let alone a relationship at all. Though his love is beautiful in the devotion and respect he gives her, because he never took the leap and told her his feelings, his relationship will never be able to achieve that perfect love and devotion that is seen in The Song.
The poet Edmund Spenser, is the closest of these poets to mimicking the style and content of The Song of Songs, with his use of metaphor to describe his lovers physical beauty. “Her lips did smell lyke unto Gillyflowers,/ Her ruddy cheeks lyke unto Roses red;/ Her snowy browes like budded Bellamoures,/ Her lovely eyes like Pincks but new spred,” (Spenser Sonnet 64). This passage from Spenser’s 64th sonnet shows a very similar style to The Song, where the Bridegroom often uses metaphor to compliment his lovers looks; “Your two breasts are two fawns,/ twins of a gazelle./ Your neck is an inory tower./ Your eyes, the pools of Heshbon,/ by the gate of Bath-rabbim.” (The Song of Songs 7:4). His vividly sexual descriptions completely change Petrarchan love poetry with frank allusions to The Song of Songs. His poetry is not only the best representation of The Song, but also the best representation of an ideal relationship. Within his poetry you can find mutuality, passion, equality, and respect. The relationship he explores within his sonnets allows for both friendship and passion, incredibly similar to The Song of Songs.
Though Shakespeare is arguably the greatest poet of all time, he also can be misogynistic. Based off Sonnet 20, it is obvious that Shakespeare believes it is impossible to have a true partnership with a woman because she can never be on the same intellectual level that he is on; that can only happen between men. Yet, it is obvious Shakespeare is not gay; “And by addition me of thee defeated,/ By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 20). Though he sexually is attracted to women, he believes them to be below men, and therefore will never be able to achieve that true equal partnership seen in The Song. To contrast Sonnet 20 though, is Sonnet 130. Alluding to The Song, this sonnet however, does the opposite. He trashes these physical metaphors and knocks down these ideals with reality; “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;/ Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;/ If now be white, why the her breasts are dun;/ If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 130). He allows the fact that his mistress may not be this perfect beautiful woman that so many poets go on about, and instead writes a more realistic physical description. However, he ends it in one of the most romantic ways possible; “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 130). Though she may not be as perfect as the Bride, he still loves her, and that is probably one of the most realistic representations of love that we can see from any of the poets.
Katherine Phillips is probably most famous for her friendship poetry, which is incredibly beautiful and heartwarming, and a good ideal for any kind of romantic relationship. Despite an arranged marriage, Phillips was able to find happiness in her relationship with her husband, and even dedicated some of her poetry to him. However, what stops Phillips from having that idealistic relationship that is seen in The Song of Songs, is the lack of passion in her relationship. It is clear that her ideal relationship is beautiful and loving and based in friendship; yet it is completely platonic. You do not see the worshiping of each others bodies as can be seen in The Song; “You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love,/ fair as Jerusalem./ Turn your eyes away,/ for they hold me captive.” (Song of Songs 5:1-4). Though her poetry is much more metaphysical and these kind of physical metaphors are not seen within her poetry, it is obvious her poetry lacks the passion when speaking of her significant other and is pessimistic about romantic relationsips; “A married state affords but little ease/ The best of husbands are so hard to please./ This in wives’ careful faces you may spell/ Though they dissemble their misfortunes well.” (Phillips, A Married State). Clearly she considers her husband as one of the best, yet even in their friendship she is chaffed by the confines of marriage. In order to achieve that ideal relationship that is seen in The Song, passion is required, and that is something Phillips lacks.
Though the ideal should always be strived for; it is often unable to attain. An equal partnership between a man and a woman is as rare as a master poet, yet that does not mean we should not continue to strive for the qualities that allow for this perfect relationship: equality, respect, and passion. Each of these poets offers up a different view on an ideal relationship, with Spenser coming closest to achieving the ideal relationship. Though Shakespeare, despite the inequality between partners, accurately reflects a more realistic relationship. Phillips offers a good alternative if a perfect relationship is unobtainable; with a relationship based in friendship. And Petrarch shows the beauty of devotion with over 300 sonnets written to a woman who didn’t even know he existed. Each poet explores relationships in a different way, though none can truly achieve what The Song of Songs was able to achieve: mutual respect and passionate love.