Reading Daniel Meldelsohn’s new essay on Sappho, I recall an essay of my own from some years ago — a reflection on Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho and her own love poetry — that contrasts a recent neopagan theory of eros with what we read in the Song of Solomon. Here’s an excerpt.


In Solomon’s Song we are repeatedly warned against the reckless invocation of a power greater than that of mere desire:

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready! (8:4 etc.)

And why should the daughters of Jerusalem be so circumspect? Because if it is the true Love that is awakened, it will not again sleep; and no floods can wash it away. And—continuing the catechism—why is that? Why will this love not sleep, nor be washed away?

Because it is grounded not in desire, not in eros, not in any “experience,” but in the beloved (a word I have used in this essay with Solomon’s song always in mind): in the bride herself, or the bridegroom himself. Love is the proper and adequate response to the excellence of the beloved. “We will exult and rejoice in you,” say the daughters of Jerusalem to the bride: “rightly do they love you” (1:4) — rightly. When she tells them to find her beloved and tell him that she is “faint with love,” they reply with a question:

What is your beloved more than another beloved,
O fairest among women?
What is your beloved more than another beloved,
that you thus adjure us? (5:9)

And the bride can answer, with more than the simile of a wheel rolling downhill, and with more than a claim for his beauty — though beauty there is, beauty there certainly is: he is “distinguished among ten thousand” (v. 10); “he is altogether desirable” (v. 16a). But above all, “This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.” Friendship implies a kind of reciprocity — even Foucault acknowledges this idea — alien to the understanding of Eros that Carson derives from Sappho: as we have seen, the great plea to Aphrodite simply assumes that desire will be unequal and asymmetrical. But it is reciprocity in which the bride places her trust; her limitless regard for the bridegroom is matched by his limitless regard for her; and so she can tell the daughters of Jerusalem with perfect assurance, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3).