Love Songs of the New Kingdom

John L. Foster (editor)

translated from the Ancient Egyptian by John L. Foster
Charles Scribner's Sons 1974
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
There's not that much in Love Songs of the New Kingdom: each poem starts on a new page; some are accompanied on the facing page by hieroglyphic versions (which will be purely ornamental to most readers, and the original texts were in hieratic anyway); and there is a good selection of halftones (reproductions of ancient Egyptian paintings). This only leaves room for some fifty poems, many of fewer than a dozen lines. Love Songs is, however, an extremely attractive volume, which I enjoyed as much I've enjoyed any collection of love poetry.

The poems themselves are pleasantly lacking in self-consciousness or artificiality. They have a very modern feel to them — if they weren't over three thousand years old they could almost have been written yesterday (but perhaps not a hundred years ago). I have no idea how much this is due to the translation (into free verse), but it makes them a good antidote to the distance which can make ancient Egypt seem so mysterious. They may also shed light on debates about the extent to which "love" is a human universal. Here's a sample:

"Astray or captured, all bear witness
to the consumate skill of this lady,
Shrewd at her craft and perfected by heaven.
Her hand has the feel of new-blown lotus,
Her breast the delicate scent of ripe berries
her arms twine like vinestems, and tangle,
And her face is a snare of fine-grained redwood.
And I? who am I in this recital? —
The proverbial goose
(and my love it is lures me)
Tricked by her tasty bait
to this trap of my own ingenious imagining."

With some similarities to the Song of Songs, the poems in Love Songs of the New Kingdom should appeal to anyone who appreciates that as love poetry.

January 1996

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%T Love Songs of the New Kingdom
%E Foster, John L.
%M Ancient Egyptian
%F Foster, John L.
%I Charles Scribner's Sons
%D 1974
%O hardcover, halftones
%G ISBN 068413781X
%P xix,120pp