Showing posts with label Solomon & Balkis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Solomon & Balkis. Show all posts

“Solomon and Balkis” (Jocoseria – 1883)

Solomon King of the Jews and the Queen of Sheba, Balkis,
Talk on the ivory throne, and we well may conjecture their talk is
Solely of things sublime: why else has she sought Mount Zion,
Climbed the six golden steps, and sat betwixt lion and lion?

She proves him with hard questions: before she has reached the middle
He smiling supplies the end, straight solves them riddle by riddle;
Until, dead-beaten at last, there is left no spirit in her,
And thus would she close the game whereof she was first beginner:

"O wisest thou of the wise, world's marvel and well-nigh monster,
One crabbed question more to construe or vulgo conster!
Who are those, of all mankind, a monarch of perfect wisdom
Should open to, when they knock at spheteron do that's his dome?"

The King makes tart reply: "Whom else but the wise his equals
Should he welcome with heart and voice? since, king though he be, such weak walls
Of circumstance power and pomp divide souls each from other
That whoso proves kingly in craft I needs must acknowledge my brother.

"Come poet, come painter, come sculptor, come builder whatever his condition,
Is he prime in his art? We are peers! My insight has pierced the partition
And hails for the poem, the picture, the statue, the building my fellow!
Gold's gold though dim in the dust: court-polish soon turns it yellow.

"But tell me in turn, O thou to thy weakling sex superior,
That for knowledge hast travelled so far yet seemest no whit the wearier, —
Who are those, of all mankind, a queen like thyself, consummate
In wisdom, should call to her side with an affable 'Up hither, come, mate!' "

"The Good are my mates — how else? Why doubt it?" the Queen upbridled:
"Sure even above the Wise, or in travel my eyes have idled, —
I see the Good stand plain: be they rich, poor, shrewd or simple,
If Good they only are. . . . Permit me to drop my wimple!"

And, in that bashful jerk of her body, she peace, thou scoffer! —
Jostled the King's right-hand stretched courteously help to proffer,
And so disclosed a portent: all unaware the Prince eyed
The Ring which bore the Name turned outside now from inside!

The truth-compelling Name! and at once "I greet the Wise — Oh,
Certainly welcome such to my court with this proviso:
The building must be my temple, my person stand forth the statue,
The picture my portrait prove, and the poem my praise you cat, you!"

But Solomon nonplussed? Nay! "Be truthful in turn!" so bade he:
"See the Name, obey its hest!" And at once subjoins the lady
— "Provided the Good are the young, men strong and tall and proper,
Such servants I straightway enlist, which means . . . " but the blushes stop her.

"Ah, Soul," the Monarch sighed, "that wouldst soar yet ever crawlest,
How comes it thou canst discern the greatest yet choose the smallest,
Unless because heaven is far, where wings find fit expansion,
While creeping on all-fours suits, suffices the earthly mansion?

"Aspire to the Best! But which? There are Bests and Bests so many,
With a habitat each for each, earth's Best as much Best as any!
On Lebanon roots the cedar soil lofty, yet stony and sandy —
While hyssop, of worth in its way, on the wall grows low but handy.

"Above may the Soul spread wing, spurn body and sense beneath her;
Below she must condescend to plodding unbuoyed by æther.
In heaven I yearn for knowledge, account all else inanity;
On earth I confess an itch for the praise of fools that's Vanity.

"It is nought, it will go, it can never presume above to trouble me;
But here, why, it toys and tickles and teases, howe'er I redouble me
In a doggedest of endeavours to play the indifferent. Therefore,
Suppose we resume discourse? Thou hast travelled thus far: but wherefore?

"Solely for Solomon's sake, to see whom earth styles Sagest?"
Through her blushes laughed the Queen. "For the sake of a Sage? The gay jest!
On high, be communion with Mind there, Body concerns not Balkis:
Down here, do I make too bold? Sage Solomon, one fool's small kiss!"

A delightfully playful and little known poem shows the softer, sweeter side of Browning’s humor. Cooke says that the conversation between King Solomon and Queen Balkis “contains an amount of humor such as does not appear in the Talmudic or other legends.” Browning’s imagination, of course, allowed him to see humor in even the driest of legends. Based on Arabian legends, Queen Balkis of Sheba (the legendary Queen of Sheba) was invited to visit King Solomon’s palace. According to the legends, she “was quite the equal to King Solomon in the answering of riddles.” In this poem, Browning humorously aligns these two wise sages together in kind of a wisest of the wisest riddle contest. He prefaces this royal tournament by explaining: “We may conjecture their talk is/Solely of things sublime . . .” The narrator offers insights into their “sublime” and lofty discussion with Queen Balkis posing riddles which theologians, philosophers and poets have wrestled with since there were such professions.

Queen Balkis begins by asking King Solomon whom he considers to be his equal or peer. Solomon replies: “‘Whom else but the wise his equals . . .” He invites all the wise ones: “‘Come poet, come painter, come sculptor, come builder . . . / All hails – for the poem, the picture, the statue, the building . . .” Then King Solomon asks Queen Balkis the same question (first addressing her, humorously, as the “weakling sex superior”) and she replies that “the Good” are “even above the Wise,” and “I see the Good stand plain: be they rich, poor, shrewd or simple . . .” Following these words, the Queen drops her wimple (because it rhymes with simple?) and the King, in the hustle to retrieve it, hands it to the Queen with his right hand outstretched – palm up – whereby his ring is exposed “turned outside now from inside!” The inside part of the ring that can only be seen palm-side, not the part that the world can see. Inscribed on the ring is “the Name,” “the truth-compelling Name.” The “Ineffable Name” written on the ring may be the word “Truth,” or some other, but, I would argue, taken from the context of the poem, more than likely, the name written on the ring bears Solomon’s name. Pearsall writes that the sudden exposing of this “Name” on the ring “causes the wisest man in the world to admit that his motivation is vanity rather than love of wisdom, and causes Balkis, Queen of Shiba, to admit (laughing and kissing him) that she has come on her famous visit not to hear his wisdom but to experience his lovemaking.” According to the legend, King Solomon did, in fact, possess a ring that granted him special powers including the ability to communicate with animals. 

Having been caught out, King Solomon says: “you cat, you!” Now, King Solomon, speaking truthfully (since the Queen has seen the name engraved on the ring), reluctantly explains that yes, he welcomes the Wise as his peers and equals so long as the “wise” poet writes a poem giving him praise, the “wise” painter paints his portrait, the “wise” sculptor creates a statue of him and the “wise” builder constructs his temple. In this unexpected and humorous admission of the Great Wise King Solomon’s immense vanity, we see the blinding and hilarious vitality of the power of Truth. The King is forced to speak the Truth behind the truth, since the dropping of the wimple was merely a ruse by Queen Balkis to force the King to show her the “name” written on the inside of the ring. Then, King Solomon tells the Queen to do the same, that is, tell the real truth. This she does by saying: “Provided the Good are the young, men strong and tall and proper . . .” She blushes after this truthful confession of her unlimited lust; the “Good” are her peers provided they are good young men, "strong and tall and proper."

Both King Solomon and Queen Balkis have confessed their innermost Truths; the King’s flaw is his vanity and the Queen’s fault of character is her lust. King Solomon lets out a sigh and asks the rhetorical question (paraphrased): “Why must the human soul forever crawl when it should soar!” He adds that we should “Aspire to the Best!” but continues that statement with a riddle: “There are Bests and Bests so many,” which one is Best? He answers his own question with: “earth’s Best as much Best as any!” He explains that he “In heaven I yearn for knowledge,” but that, in reality, here “On earth I confess an itch for the praise of fools – that’s Vanity.” No matter how hard he “redoubles” his efforts to be “indifferent” to its power, “it toys and tickles and teases” him, regardless of the “doggedest of endeavors” to not be affected. He breaks from this confessional revelry and asks the Queen, rather bluntly, “Thou has traveled thus far: but wherefore?”  She laughs with a blush and says in heaven, “there, Body concerns not Balkis:/Down here,–/do I make too bold? Sage Solomon,– one fool’s small kiss!” Though she is not concerned with the body in heaven (there), she is very aware of the physical passions “Down here” on earth. (“Down here” may also refer to where her hands are placed on her lap.)

Should the reader, after completing the poem, return to the beginning where the narrator says: “we well may conjecture their talk is/Solely of things sublime,” we have an all new interpretation of the word “sublime.” At first, we may have interpreted it as “lofty,” “heaven-ward,” “inspirational,” or “transcending.” But on reflection, we are now interpreting the word with a softer, more intimate human definition including “passionate,” “delightful” and “secretive” allowing for natural human weaknesses – including the King’s vanity and the Queen’s lust.

Browning has delicately woven into the very fabric of this marvelous little poem an unparalleled and humorously quaint tale of two not-so-young people flirting with each other as if they were teenagers. The reader soon realizes that the ever-so wise and judicious King Solomon and Queen Balkis are not interested in trying to solve or understand life’s great mysteries under Browning’s pen; they do not discuss social, political, religious or theological things of weight as one would expect of these two great Monarchs. What they do converse about are their innermost secrets while flirting and toying and tickling and teasing each other as is the custom of all new young lovers.

The poem ends with (or perhaps really begins with) “one fool’s small kiss!” The next humorous poem ends the same way, but the kissing couple could not be more unlike King Solomon and Queen Balkis.