[ by Charles Cameron — second take on the paradox, this time featuring wolves, poetry, lions, honey, and Bach ]
I’m always trying to see war and peace — violence and gentleness, if you like — in counterpoint rather than in opposition. The distinction is a subtle one, I know, but that’s the task. I tackled it from one angle a few days ago in this earlier post, and imagine I’ll return to it again from time to time.
I was fascinated to run across two very different artists talking about wolves these last few days. Robinson Jeffers, in his great poem The Bloody Sire, sees the wolf’s violence (upper panel) as bringing speed and grace to the antelope:
while the extraordinary pianist Hélène Grimaud describes her first encounter with a wolf (lower panel) in terms of gentleness.
After that striking first encounter with a wolf, Grimaud went on to found the Wolf Conservation Center in upstate New York (see NYT article by clinking on image at top of this post).
There’s a longish and fairly erotically, religiously and violently charged story in chapter 14 of the book of Judges. Samson, so the story goes, took a liking to a woman of the Philistines, and despite his parent’s urgings went down to see her because, as he delicately put it, “she pleaseth me well.” Along the way he meet a young lion, and “rent him” — tore him apart with his bare hands — “as he would have rent a kid” — here meaning a young goat. Samson continued to like the look of the women of the Philistines, we are told, and on his next visit down to see her, “he turned aside to see the carcase of the lion: and, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcase of the lion. And he took thereof in his hands, and went on eating, and came to his father and mother, and he gave them, and they did eat…”
Samson, it seems, was a gambling man, and he soon proposed a bet and a riddle to his bride’s companions — for somewhere around that time they had married, a fact that the story teller omits to tell us in so many words — giving them seven days to solve it:
Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.
The companions, of course, could not solve the riddle, since they had not seen the lion, nor its carcase with its swarm of bees and honey… but they pleaded with his new wife so piteously that she pleaded with her new husband so piteously that he revealed the secret to her, and on the seventh day her Philistine companions won the bet and answered Samson’s riddle:
What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?
To which poor Samson replied:
If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle.
The marriage didn’t last — and, we are told, “his anger was kindled…”
I certainly heard this story intoned in chapel at one school or another, but recognized neither the eroticism nor the violence nor the significance of the religious enmity between monotheistic Jew and pagan Philistine…
But my mother did make us pancakes on rare and wonderful occasions, and on them I lavished farm butter and Tate and Lyle‘s glorious Golden Syrup, with its image of Samson’s lion and the honey bees:
and the Tate and Lyle motto: Out of the strong came forth sweetness.
It’s that sweetness — that image of the lion and those bees more than the Biblical story itself — that I remember…
I am grateful to Steve Engel for bringing Robinson Jeffers’ poem to my attention this last week, and to J Scott Shipman of this blog for introducing me to Hélène Grimaud’s playing of the Bach Chaconne on YouTube:
Out of the strong came forth sweetness indeed.