I've almost finished my preliminary reading on the Song of Songs before I dive into serious study verse by verse. I wanted to take this post to contrast some approaches to the Song. The two primary approaches under discussion will be that of Exum and Garrett, though, towards the end I will also incorporate Longman's. The question is, what is the Song of Songs? The answer given by most everyone now is that it is erotic love poetry. Upon probing deeper, a variety of approaches emerge.
Once upon a time, it was common to read the Song as a dramatic poem. One variety saw it as a story of a love triangle between Solomon, the woman, and a shepherd. There aren't many proponents of these views anymore, however, the question of plot is still discussed. Does the Song (if it is a single poem) have any plot? If so to what degree? Garrett is one of the most vocal critics of the dramatic theories (80-1 in fact Garrett's introduction is one of the most negative towards other views that I've ever read in a commentary). That's why I found it so interesting that he sees a fair amount of plot in the Song. It's a poem about two lovers leading up to their wedding, and consummating it (111-3). He uses terms like 'protagonist' (for the woman) and 'quest' in his descriptions. The Song, to Garrett, is a poem about the woman's transformation from virgin and bound to wife and free. While perhaps less ambitious than the dramatic theories, I think it still falls into the same traps. There's not enough warrant in the text (at least based on my preliminary readings) to support this theory. More on this later.
Exum takes a much more restrained approach. There is a very strong stress throughout her introduction that the Song is lyric poetry. In effect, structure gets mistaken for plot. There arguably is an overarching structure to the Song, and there are repeated motifs and key words, but poetic development should not be mistaken for plot. There are stories told on the micro level, but there is no larger 'story' as far as we can tell (44).
I think that Exum is assuredly right here. This would be especially true if the suggestion of Longman (among others) is true (54-6). Do we have only one poem present here (as Exum thinks)? I am not so sure. We clearly have one poet, but this could be either one very long poem or a collection of multiple poems with an intentional arrangement. I write love poetry for my wife. You could take a selection of poems that I have written for her over the past decade and find a way, with minimal editing, to arrange them into a coherent whole. Since the characters remain constant, you could probably string together a basic plot (some of my poems clearly refer to key events like engagement, the birth of our child, etc.). It would seem as if there was a plot. But that would be a misreading of the poems as poems.
Is the Song a unity? I'm not sure. I'll dive into that more as I study the individual units. However, reading for plot seems to be clearly a mistake, at least to me.