I’m fond of that passage in Scripture, where we hear that Jonathan, the son of King Saul, was exhausted after a battle, and he found some honey on the ground in the woods. So he took the staff in his hand and dipped it into the honey, and tasted it, and the light came back into his eyes. What a great image that is — and it makes me want to reach for something sweet, right now.
In every human language, sweetness is a mark of affection. “Don’t yank my head back like that, Candy,” says the motherly cook Berenice to the little boy John Henry, who’s just asked which of her two eyes is her “mind’s eye.” “Me and Frankie ain’t going to float through the ceiling and leave you.” Candy is what she always calls him. That’s in the film The Member of the Wedding, which has moments of inexpressible sweetness, all the sweeter in this case because it’s a sad story, and deeply human. “Come and kiss me, sweet and twenty,” sings the wise clown Feste in Twelfth Night, for “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”
What makes a thing sweet? I guess the biologists can give us an answer, sort of. One day in late August, I was out in a field far north, with my dog Jasper, the most intelligent animal I’ve ever known to walk on four legs, and before I could stop him, he had plucked off and eaten a couple of glossy blue-black berries from a bush. They were not blueberries. What they were, I didn’t know, but I figured that the dog would eat them only if they were sweet, and if they were sweet, they must be good. So I ate a few, joining my fate with his. Sure enough, they turned out to be bilberries, with their own special flavor, and they are in fact good for you.
I might have been like the children of Israel, when they saw flakes like hoarfrost on the ground, and they said, “Mah na?” — which means, “What’s that?” It was the food from heaven that God had sent them to stave off their hunger in the wilderness. It was sweet, too, and when you baked it into wafers, they had a delicate taste of honey. Perhaps too delicate, too heavenly, for the earthy and ungrateful Israelites, who eventually complained about the manna also. They longed for “the fleshpots of Egypt.” When I was a boy, I didn’t know that that referred to pots of stew. I thought it had something to do with Egyptians, but what it was, I couldn’t figure out.
Those fleshpots of Egypt, the land of slavery, weren’t sweet. They were spiked, as the Scripture tells us, with garlic, onions, and leeks, and that’s why we suspect that Chaucer’s Summoner, who has a keen appetite for garlic, onions, and leeks, is not exactly the right man for helping you to get to the promised land. Sure enough, he really does not care whether you die in your sins, just so long as he gets his cut, or a bribe. Still, the word sweet, in Middle English soote or swoote or sweete, was a favorite of Chaucer’s, which he used to describe the beauty of youth (even the rascal Nicholas in “The Miller’s Tale”), or of a melody, or of persuasive words — “sweet talk,” as we may say. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter,” says Keats in his famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” as he beholds the relief sculpture of youth and love. When the lovely Beatrice first appears to Virgil, to urge him to go to the assistance of the lost wanderer Dante, her words are sweet, soave – what becomes our word suave, meaning for us something a little different, because what is suave may persuade you to your sorrow as to your joy.
The word, sweet, then, is quite rich. Its relations in other languages bear this out. In Latin, suavis suggests something easy, pleasant, gentle – literally, when you persuade somebody, you pierce him with sweetness and pleasure, so that he does as you please, as you find sweet. Homer says that the Muses dash the words of the wise man with honey, with grace, that he may win the hearts of the people to do what is right. “Taste and see that the Lord is sweet,” says the Psalmist. He isn’t talking about what you feel on your tongue. It’s an entire experience of beauty. When the Lord commands Ezekiel to eat the scroll, the prophet finds it sweet, like honey. That doesn’t mean the House of Israel, to whom God is sending the prophet, will find it sweet. They’re a headstrong race, in rebellion. When you have a sour stomach, you may spew out the sweet; the problem is in not in the sweet thing, but in you. In this sense, sweet is the opposite of sour, if sour is taken to describe not the taste of certain cheeses, but a moral curdling; and the opposite of bitter, if bitter describes the harshness of suffering, or the sting of sin, or the goads of self-promotion. That’s why the children of Israel remembered the waters of Meribah, the waters of bitterness, where they tempted the Lord in the desert. It’s as James says, you do not get sweet water (Greek glykos, here meaning fresh) from a salt spring or a brine pit. Just so, from someone animated by pride or jealousy you don’t get the wisdom from above, but something from earth, or from a place lower still. Watch out for that food!
Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is a reader-supported online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. To receive new posts and support this project, join us as a free or paid subscriber.
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