Lust and the Holy Land

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah

So sang Leonard Cohen in one of the most popular songs of the last twenty years or so, a karaoke standby, commercial radio favourite and X Factor standard, Hallelujah. Seeing and hearing some of the cover versions brought out in recent years, I wonder how closely a lot of the singers listened to the song: one on the radio pronounced ‘overthrew ya’ as ‘overthrew you;’ perhaps he thought he was cleaning up Cohen’s diction, and apparently not noticing that those words, in one of Cohen’s beguiling blends of the sacred and the profane, was meant to rhyme with ‘hallelujah.’ One X Factor contestant sang the song with his fists clenched, looking to the sky as if he were singing gospel or Christian rock. Whatever else the song is, it ain’t that.

Cohen was a poet before he was a songwriter, and his songs are full of religious and historical references, but he also had the knack of writing a catchy tune, which is why so many people now find themselves singing along to a song that blends Cohen’s own romantic misadventures with those of a three thousand-year-old Hebrew King. According to the book of Samuel, King David walked on the roof of his palace and from there saw Bathsheba bathing. He seduced her and made her pregnant, and to avoid her husband finding out, called back from the wars so that her husband could sleep with her and imagine himself the father. The soldier, Uriah, would not sleep with her as the law forbade soldiers from sexual activity while on duty, so the king sent Uriah to the front line where he was killed in action, allowing the king to marry his widow, though not without tragic consequences.

Cohen uses the powerful imagery of the David and Bathsheba story to evoke those first, guilty stirrings of lust in a relationship. In the 20th century, sexual guilt and divine punishment were fast going out of fashion, but Cohen’s lust was apparently not without consequence: the following lines seem to suggest a relationship that led to a loss of dignity on the man’s part, and perhaps outright humiliation, alongside whatever sexual satisfaction it brought.

In the late 16th century, the very same biblical story inspired one of the most sensuous lyrics in the English language, George Peele’s Bethsabe’s Song, actually a lyric from his play David and Fair Bethsabe. This song is what she is singing as she is being viewed by the King:

Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air,
Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair.
Shine, sun; burn fire; breathe, air, and ease me;
Black shade, fair nurse, shroud me and please me;
Shadow, my sweet nurse, keep me from burning,
Make not my glad cause cause of mourning.
Let not my beauty's fire
Inflame unstaid desire,
Nor pierce any bright eye
That wand'reth lightly. 


Peele’s poem is full of contrasts – the hot sun and the cool sweet airs of the outdoors, the whiteness of Bathsheba and the black shade she calls from her maid. In European literature, while darkness signifies evil, whiteness often signifies purity and innocence, but it is clear to the reader that Bathsheba’s thoughts and feelings are hardly pure – her calling for ‘black shade’ from her maid may represent a subconscious desire to spot her purity with sin. Her wishes seem to contradict each other, as she asks at the very same time for the sun to shine and to be kept from burning, as if she is simultaneously relishing and resisting her own desire, and they even, with the ‘cool fire’ turn to paradox, a poetic symptom of the confusions of love since Petrarch employed them in 14th century Italy.This Bathsheba, far from an innocent, seems to be aware of the observer – the line ‘shroud me and please me’ is as much a come on to the king as an instruction to her maid. The sixth line ‘make not my glad cause cause of mourning,’ too,  is best interpreted as directed at the king, asking that the cause of his desire – i.e. her beauty, not also be the cause of tragedy, which of course it would be.

The ‘mourning’refers not to the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, but rather the death of the child conceived as a result of David and Bathsheba’s affair. That, according to the Bible, was God’s punishment for David’s sin.

But the couple’s second son went on to become the great King Solomon, known for his wisdom, which has become proverbial, and also for a great love affair of his own. The story of his great affair with the queen of Sheba has little grounding in the Bible, but has become a rich source of extra-Biblical tradition for not just for Jews, but for Muslims and for Ethiopian Christians: Sheba, it is thought, was an ancient kingdom that straddled both sides of the Red Sea in what is now Yemen and the Horn of Africa.The figure of Sheba has also been a source of fascination to poets, most notably the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Here is the first stanza of one of two poems he wrote about the couple, Solomon to Sheba:

Sang Solomon to Sheba,

And kissed her dusky face,

‘All day from long mid-day

We have talked in the one place,

All day long from shadowless noon

We have gone round and round

In the narrow theme of love

Like an old horse in a pound.’

The relationship between Sheba and Solomon is sometimes treated as a kind of synecdoche for the meeting of east and west, and one could certainly try an ‘Orientalist’ critique of poems such as Yeats’, if one were that way inclined – many people, for example, would be a little uncomfortable with the description of Sheba’s face as ‘dusky’ at the offset of the poem. But Yeats wrote in less racially sensitive times, and his theme in this poem is not 'race', nor the meeting of civilizations, but the meeting of souls – that is, love. If David and Bathsheba’s love became a symbol of a transgressive love that brings disaster, Solomon and Sheba’s somehow became symbolic of a love that can bring people from two disparate cultures into a unity. Throughout the three stanzas of the poem, Yeats circles around the same words, the same image and the same idea: that love can shrink our worlds down to the size and nature of a pound, in which a horse goes round and round. There’s something of a wry joke in there, I suspect, which I will come back to in just a moment.

Sheba wasn’t Solomon’s only conquest. Solomon was famous for his many lovers as much as for his wisdom. This is why that great long ode to erotic love that somehow made it into the Bible, the Song of Songs, was often attributed to him and is sometimes known as the Song of Solomon. Jewish and Christian theologians have had to come up with some far-fetched ideas to justify the inclusion of the Song of Songs in the Bible, with Christians, for example, making of it a metaphor for the love between Jesus and his church. But laymen have been free to enjoy it for what it most obviously is – love poetry. The Song of Songs is probably a mix of several poems by different authors rather than one but the most memorable parts concern two lovers who praise each other in strikingly pastoral terms, evocative of the landscape of the valleys, vineyards and orchards of the land around Jerusalem. Pastoral beauty aside, the poem is quite striking for its frank near-eroticism and for the very equal relationship of the male and female lover, both wooers and both wooed. Here is the woman singing of the man:

(2.3) As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.

And here is the man singing to the woman:

(7. 2, 6-7) Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies…How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes

The poet borrows the sensuousness of the surrounding countryside for the attractive features of the lovers, and that is one of the most characteristic and influential poetic techniques of the poem– I can’t imagine, for example, Neruda’s best-selling Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair would read as it does without the enduring influence of Song of Songs in Western culture, even if his conflation of the fruits of the nature and the body of the lover is, although  if anything, more sensuous, a little less direct:

Girl lithe and tawny, the sun that forms the fruits,
that plumps the grains, that curls seaweeds
filled your body with joy, and your luminous eyes
and your mouth that has the smile of water.

I also wondered whether Yeats, who must have been aware of the association between Solomon and the Song of Songs, was having a bit of a joke within his poem: the central image of the poem, that of a horse wandering a pound lacks the exoticism we expect from a poem about an Israeli king bedding an Afro-Arabian queen – it is much more evocative of his own native Dublin than of the ancient Middle East.But I digress. It’s no more absurd for Yeats to put a bit of Dublin into Jerusalem than for Cohen to imagine himself King David in 20th Century New York. For Westerners, Jew and Gentile alike, much of our language of desire, as much as our spirituality, can be traced back to the Holy Land.


Hallelujah lyrics from the album Various Positions (really), Leonard Cohen1984

George Peele’s Bethsabe’s Song is available on the internet, as is the King James Bible from which the Song of Songs verses were taken.

Solomon to Sheba, Selected PoemsW.B. Yeats, Ed. Timothy Webb, Penguin, London, 2000

Girl Lithe and Tawny, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Pablo Neruda, Transl. W.S. Merwin, Penguin, 1993.