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« "Etudes" [by Elaine Equi] | Main | Autumn in Abruzzo [by Moira Egan] »

October 22, 2008


Oh the thoughts you've given me! First I must admit that I don't understand what Yeats means in his reference to the lion and honeycomb -- what HAS scripture said about it? As an outsider to both religion and poetry, it's certainly unclear to me.

But being a lover of parables and fairy tales, I tracked down the poem and the bible passages, and am further mystified. It's a strange and violent story, and the interpretation that the honey is the "spiritual sweetness and nourishment our souls will acquire from slaying the lions of our passions and vices" (quoted from Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary) seems like a later gloss on the lesson. The moral of the whole tale seems to me to be "Don't tell your woman your secrets, especially if she's from another tribe," a moral that Samson fails to learn, as we see when he later tells Delilah how to bring him down despite proof of her perfidy. Maybe it's this gap between the religious and practical interpretations that Yeats (and perhaps you) are referring to?

Anyway, for your (and my own) amusement, here is my summary of the tale of Samson and the lion and the honeycomb, originally told in Judges 14 and 15.

Samson likes a daughter of the Philistines.
On the way down to see her with his parents, he kills a lion with his bare hands.
On the way down again later to marry her, he finds a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion.
He eats the honey, and gives some to his parents without telling them where he got it.
He makes up a riddle about the lion and the honey, and asks it of 30 men of his wife's tribe (with a prize offered of a sheet and change of clothes for each man): "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness."
The men can't guess, and harass Samson's wife to get the answer.
The wife (who is nameless) cries and says "you hate me," and eventually gets the answer from him, and tells the men.
The men answer Samson's riddle, and he accuses them of screwing his wife to get the answer.
Samson kills the men, but gives them the 30 changes of clothes anyway, then goes home to his father.
The wife's father gives her to another man.
Later, Samson goes to see her and is pissed that her father won't let him in.
Samson burns up the Philistines' corn fields, vineyards, and olives (using a strange trick with burning brands and 300 foxes).
The Philistines burn up the woman and her father in retaliation.
Samson slaughters lots of Philistines in revenge, then takes refuge among the men of Judah.
The men of Judah bind him and deliver him to the Philistines (who are their overlords).
Samson bursts his bonds, snatches up the jawbone of an ass, and kills a thousand men.
Water comes out of the jawbone to quench Samson's great thirst.

Thank you, Liz, for your comment and the freewheeling translation of Samson and the lion. Like you JMH, I love "Vacillation" and revel in the way each movement of the poem advances it by reversing course. The lines in the crowded London shop are ravishing: I remember reading them as a student in Cambridge and looking for a tea room suitable for such an epiphany. Never found it. But my favorite couplet is in part III: "No man has ever lived that had enough / Of children's gratitude or women's love."

Liz –

I was and am delighted by your post and excellent questions. I agree that it is not at all evident what Yeats means even after a lot of research into the story.

What the Bible meant is easier. It didn’t mean at all. The story has at least one feature that is so weird and so not-narrative that it makes sense to guess that somewhere sometime, this happened to someone. Someone killed a lion and came back and found a swarm of bees making hive and honeycomb within the bones. Mostly, of course, there are parts of the Samson story that read like common hero story, especially the huge number of men killed in each of Samson’s fights. Riddles also show up a lot in fairy tales. But the lion carcass with honey in it rings true. It is not common and it doesn’t advance a plot, which is what I mean by non-narrative.

You are certainly correct that:
"’spiritual sweetness and nourishment our souls will acquire from slaying the lions of our passions and vices’ (quoted from Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary) seems like a later gloss on the lesson.”

A much later gloss. Though it is pretty, in its way.

We can go yet farther and dismiss the idea that this story was kept in the Bible for its power as a lesson. I think it is more likely that it was kept in the Bible, preserved by all editors, because it was so “sick” as the kids say today, when they mean “cool” or “hot.” It was one of the few things that got remembered from an ancient place, because it was…memorable.

We don’t know whether the lion and the honey tale was always attached to the story of a brutal man who tried to marry a daughter of the overlords and ended up freaking out on them, goading them with an impossible question posed as if it were a riddle.

Some riddle! That’s why they want so badly to know, because they think it has an answer they could have figured out. This riddlish question is such good literature because if you give someone you hate a nice food gift that you found in an animal carcass, and you keep the provenance a secret, and then taunt them about it in code because you want so so so much to tell them, that is a kind of poisoning. A grotesque truth hides in sweetness.

Put all that on the large empty table in front of us, shift your chair and put this next to it:

* Heaven and Israel are the lands of milk and honey.
* Honey preserves dead bodies, and was an Ancient Egyptian embalming essential.
* Heaven and Israel, yea, the Kingdom come, is when a living lion lies down, all cuddly, with the lamb.

The extent of the perversion is thrilling.

Yea, and boy oh boy. How sick, and cool, and hot is the world, the world of being a human being, who writes poems one day and rots the next? Why not bring out the harpies while we yet live?

This lion was laid down, by fury. Samson don’t just shoot a lion, he tears one up. Comes back to see it (as we all go back to see the mess we made) and this time it is not the mess we left it, but a new animal in the bestiary, a chimera like a jackalope: the lionhive. The lionbee, or beelion? Ah, the beeline. Has feline in it. great.

The beeline is one dark chimera, yes? The nightmare version of the live lion and the cuddly lamb. The dead lion and a borg horde of bees, if I may bring out my geek. Stingers and buzz and no straight lines. Oddly, their asses exude honey. (Perhaps the gross of the dead lion just serves to remind us of the gross of bees shitting honey and our eating it and turning it to shit, in which the shit-eating flowers grow.)

Your other excellent point was about that girl Delilah. As you quite aptly put it: “The moral of the whole tale seems to me to be ‘Don't tell your woman your secrets… a moral that Samson fails to learn…”

Nobody ever learns this lesson and stays fully human. Those who learn not to trust love are more broken than those who trust and are betrayed. Anyway, let’s face it. Dude needed a haircut. Not for nothing, but dude needed killing, too.

What has scripture said? When Yeats says What has scripture said? Don’t read it like a man asking you to remember some truth we all have read. Read it like a man who is dismissing scripture as a path to truth. (Yeats says he takes Homer instead.) We, Von Hugel and Yeats, both believe that sometimes bodies don’t rot, but Yeats thinks both the modern saint and the ancient mummy were being preserved by scientific technique, possibly the same ones. But because this is poetry, Yeats uses the text that he is dismissing, the Bible, quoting its beautiful power of paradox and its occasional brilliant insight about the horror and the joy of the life of humanity. Read that last stanza again now.

The lion and the honeycomb. [sigh] What has scripture said?
So get you gone von Hugel, but with blessings on your head.

Thank you Liz! I enjoyed thinking this through immensely. I’m in LA at my brother’s wedding. I’m writing this on the beach in Venice.

Thank you David. Flattered, as always.

"Time Has An End"
Time has an end, with much of God's word, the Bible, to comprehend, but most won't contend, and climate change won't mend;
Global warming is God's final warning, as He is always in control, and He is our Weatherman (Isaiah 45, Nahum 1, Jeremiah 23....)
Because of too much rebellion and sin, and wicked hearts within. (Jeremiah 7, Psalm 48, Romans 1-3...)
God gave us His written word, originally in Hebrew and Greek, and called this book the Bible, to show us how to live and be;
The Bible was written by holy men of old, many years ago, as God moved them through the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21);
And all scripture was written by inspiration of God, for us to be corrected, and reproved, by walking in His truth (2 Timothy 3:16,17);
We have a most loving, and merciful God, to be praised and obeyed, from the moment we arise, til we go to sleep at night, yet much of the world won’t take heed, and go their own way; (Psalm 113:3, Ezekiel 39, Jeremiah 12, Ephesians 5, Titus 3, 2 Timothy 3..... )
He is the King of kings, LORD of lords, He is our Savior, Creator of all, but most won't even acknowledge Him, and mock Him with much gall;
We’re in the “Great Tribulation” now of Matthew 24, the LORD has opened up the seals (Revelation 5-22), so we can see truth more;
In Daniel chapter 12 vs 9, God told Daniel the seals were closed til the end of time;
If you study from Isaiah to the book of Malachi, hopefully you will see that this is all about the end times;
Too many false gospels, signs and wonders, none have the truth, since God has allowed Satan to take his seat in the temple, and now rules, according to 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 (2 Corinthians 11, Revelation 2,3, 17-22)
Judgment has begun on the house of God, in 1 Peter chapter 4, God is starting with the churches, and then to many more; (Ezekiel 9, Jeremiah 25...)
God is our Faith, our Baptism, our LORD, and Father of all, and only He can save, not the pope, priest, you, or me, and none can come to Him, unless He draws, and only by His mercy; (John 6:44, 10:30, Ezekiel 36, Romans 1-9, 1 Timothy 2:5, Titus 3, Ephesians 1-5...)
So as the days of Noah, because of too much sin, when the floods came, and took most everyone/thing away, except for the animals on ark, and Noah's family of eight,
So shall our LORD and Savior, Jesus Christ (both the same), come and destroy this earth with fire on the dreadful Judgment Day, with only a remnant saved (Isaiah 1, 10, 11, Jeremiah 23, 31, Ezekiel 6, Joel 2, Malachi 4, Romans 9, 11, 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9, Revelation 11, 12, 18-22….), and He alone is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2);
Please come soon LORD Jesus, please come soon, let Satan and sin no longer rule, for many are suffering, more and more each day, especially the children, LORD we pray;
Please come soon dear LORD, please come save (Revelation 18-22)

Thank you for listening, may God bless, and keep you always!

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