David and Jonathan

“David returned from slaughtering Goliath and brought the head before Saul. When he had finished speaking, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David. And he . . . loved him as his own soul, and stripped himself of his robe and gave it to David, and even his sword, bow, and girdle . . . . Jonathan went out to the field and shot an arrow [signaling Saul’s intent to kill David.] And David fell on his face three times, and they kissed and wept with one another until David exceeded himself. Then Jonathan said, ‘Go in peace, for we both have sworn, the Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendents and your descendents, forever’. . . . [After Jonathan’s death David chanted,] ‘Jonathan lies slain upon your high places, Israel; I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan,/ Your love to me was wonderful,/ Passing the love of women’” (from 1st Sam. 17:57 – 18:4; 18:35-42; 2nd Sam 1:25-26).

Prince Jonathan was heir to Saul
But threatened
By the rising star of David:
Strategist of battles, darling of the crowds,
Spiritual captain.
Some called him king already.
How could they be soul mates?
Or how could they not so love?–
Heir apparent and heir apparent,
Double signs of splendor.

When David sang at the throneroom fire
Harp in hand,
Armor beside him catching light,
Of Elohim and battle courage,
Then of meadow streams on grassy bottoms
For shepherds watering their sheep
And stroking fleecy backs,
Jonathan forgot himself,
And David fell entranced with princeliness.
They swore each other goodness always,
Down to descendants’ days.
What folly though for Jonathan
To favor this ruddy David,
Anointed by war and prophets’ oil
To take his crown.
David the village boy–
Fame fell upon him–lord of his own face
He had a grace
To turn up anywhere
And find himself adored.

But Jonathan prince of self-abandon,
Captain yourself in battles,
For him you stripped off spear and shield,
Gave all your soul for the matching soul,
For the brother-in-arms.
Your prescience failed.
You couldn’t see David dying, directing his Solomon
To kill your son Mephibosheth–
David, “the man after God’s own heart”?
Poet who’d sung the god-presence
Pulsing everywhere from the forming limbs in every womb
To the outer gates of sunset?–
He, on his deathbed, doing what?

It was policy.
David held out, all his long days,
Keeping Mephibosheth at bay,
Honored and watched at the royal table.
But finally, his mere existence harmed–
No way but this to stave off
Bloody strife of heirs.
It was so in your day too,
Jonathan prince of generosity–
Saul and David fought their wars, kin slaughtered kin,
But not by any choice of yours.
Nothing you cared to keep the crown from David.
You lost yourself in glory–
So you entered his high song that moved him
Body and mind:
“Wonderful was your love to me,
My brother Jonathan,
Passing the love of women.
How are the mighty fallen!
Slain on the high places.”

A Star-Crossed Friendship

Many epics have sung the love of brothers-in-arms–Gilgamesh and Enkidu in ancient Babylon, Achilles and Patroklos in Greece, David and Jonathan in Israel, Nisus and Euryalus in Italy. Warrior courage is always its flame, the love of two men side by side—rib to rib—its beauty. But the plots can run different ways. After grand years of fullest life together, Enkidu dies of a wasting disease, leaving Gilgamesh to rage through all the earth and underworld, to find out why. Patroklos dies leading a battle charge that Achilles should have led, if he hadn’t been pouting in his tent–then the Trojans have hell to pay in his sweeping revenge. David and Jonathan were star-crossed friends: politics, conflict for the throne, divided them. Only in David’s death chant for Jonathan could they be long together.

Nisus and Euryalus might have been the luckiest of such storied pairs in that they got to die together. Two soldiers fighting for Aeneas as he conquers Italy to found the Roman people, they plan a sortie past enemy lines, just the two of them. They aim to surprise and kill as many besieging enemy soldiers as possible, then take a crucial message to their leader, Aeneas. Of the Prince Ascanius they ask only that, if they don’t return, he should take in young Euryalus’ mother as his own mother. That promise glowingly made, they set out on their night sortie, and kill enemies till the ground is red with gore. But as they leave the scene of their attack, Euryalus lags behind, and a passing patrol catches him. Its captain kills the young hero, only himself to fall when Nisus rushes back, killing men all the way, and dies taking revenge for his fallen beloved. (These are the terms used in the Latin: lover for the older man, beloved for the younger.) As Nisus dies, he throws himself on the body of Euryalus, so the two are united in death as in life. But let’s hear it in something like Virgil’s own words (W. F. J. Knight’s translation):

Then pierced through/ He cast himself down on his lifeless friend/ And there at last found peace in a welcoming death./ Fortunate pair! If there is any power in my poetry,/ No day shall ever steal you from the memory of time,/ So long as sons of Aeneas dwell by the Capitol’s immovable stone,/ And a Roman Father holds dominion yet. (from Aeneid, Bk. IX)

A Roman Father holds dominion yet?

Well yes, a Roman Father still holds dominion of sorts over a world church, albeit rickety. How could an empire last so long? It’s a question for the post-colonial theorists, too vast to be answered here, deserving mention though, if we think about the loves of brothers in arms, and its underpinning of institutions.

Some cultures have found ways to let the bounty of comrades’ loves be captured as a benefit,
a force within a people’s self-definition. Virgil compares Euryalus’ love and devotion to his mother to the love of Ascanius for his father Aeneas–both are simply love of “parents,” a keynote value in the whole of the Aeneid, in fact the very ground tone of the Roman piety that it celebrates. Nothing is criticized in the two lover-comrades, nothing held against them. That they fathered no children does not matter: through love of their people and their parents they are taken up into the sphere of ideal community–no day shall ever steal them from the Roman memory.

The pity is that the bounty of same sex love seems usually to require a packaging in blood and war—or else a packaging in compulsory celibacy. The Amazon-like warrior Camilla is also sung in the Aeneid. When the brothers in love are brothers in arms, giving their lives for the community’s wars, then they can perhaps be admired and celebrated. Why only then?

“Let us now praise famous ‘men’.” Let us laud partners who live for peace, for a community that sees no enemies, only friends at home and neighbors abroad—or at least, ‘Others’ with whom the best arts of mediation are always to be practiced. This would be the new “manly love of brothers,” even better than that sung by Walt Whitman with his “barbaric yawp.” Will humanity ever catch up to it? “Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,” Whitman said, ” I stop somewhere ahead, waiting for you.”

At a suburban university two men, a life-long couple, have made a career of teaching, and together have founded a biennial conference for scholars. One of them has just retired, and at the dinner celebration for him, at the latest convening of their conference, the hall was packed with colleagues and former students for an evening ringing with toasts and reminiscences. They’ll be remembered for what they made together—spiritual procreation Plato called it—a circulation of bounty through individuals and community. When will we have epics of those who, side by side, fight the common enemies of humankind–disease, poverty, injustice, the lovelessness that brings empty eyes and killing. Can human beings ever learn to fight such battles through strategic alliances, with respect for each other’s ways, not needing to conquer and rule?

The days of Saul, David, and Solomon–the united kingdom–were the time of empire for ancient Israel, the greatest spread of their power over neighboring peoples. Their usual mode was to be among those conquered, though somehow never assimilated, by successive empires–Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Assyria. Yet for a change, it was the wealth and expansionist power of those three kings that took the people’s lore of Yahweh and Elohim into written form and brought it down to us. We should admit this. Jonathan’s father Saul had begun the conquests, but his son was not a man for kingly power, rather for his beloved friend. When will the empires stop ravaging? There’s now a movement for Simple Living in the U.S. Northwest, portrayed in a Public Television documentary called “Affluenza”; it sponsors “uncommercials” and a Don’t Buy Anything day, urging economists to devise new measurements to replace the incessant growth of products now choking the planet—a Gross Well-Being Index instead of a GNP which must be ever balooning. When will more and more people and groups learn to find their treasure in works of craft and spirit and body, not in endless trains of consumer booty, bought and trashed. We may hope that the twentieth century learned to “Make love not war.” The next century must learn to “Make love not garbage.”