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Leonard Cohen


By Sam Goldman


    The late Leonard Cohen was a renowned Canadian poet, musician, novelist, songwriter, singer, and painter. Cohen, who was most famous for his music, first launched a career as a novelist and poet during the 1950s, and did not officially become a musician until he was thirty- three. He published his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967, and did not stop until his death earlier this year - he released his last album just three weeks before dying. Cohen was dubbed a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation's most prestigious civilian honor. He was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cohen's work mainly focused on politics, sexuality, religion, relationships, and isolation. The main theme that will be the focus of this poetic analysis paper is that Cohen uses biblical references as a vehicle for love in his poems. This theme will be explored through three of Cohen's works: "Suzanne", "The Future", and "Hallelujah".

    The first poetic work that reveals Cohen's tendency to represent love with biblical references is "Suzanne", published when he was transitioning from poetry to music. The poem begins with love as the subject: The narrator (presumably Cohen) and a woman named Suzanne venture to a building by the river. Suzanne works here, and her services range from serving tea to letting men spend the night with her. As Suzanne seduces the speaker, she convinces him that they are in love. Between stanzas, the song's subject suddenly shifts from Suzanne to Jesus through the use of water imagery (O'Neil). The second stanza pertains to the gospel story of the Redemption, in which Cohen likens Jesus to a sailor, and says that he looks at drowning men from the viewpoint of a wooden tower and articulates a prophecy that the "sea shall free them" (Cohen 14). In the first stanza refrain, the narrator wants Suzanne to trust him:

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you've touched her perfect body with your mind.
(Cohen 8-10)
In the second, the speaker wishes to pursue Jesus:
And you think maybe you'll trust him
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.
(Cohen 18-19)
The last stanza comes back to Suzanne:
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body with her mind.
(Cohen 28-29)
Having encountered Suzanne's absolute faith in the principal stanza and Christ's resolve toward humankind in the second, the speaker implores, in the last stanza, for trust - the capacity to "travel blind." The faith that he believes to have in Christ and "knows" he has for Suzanne is a testament to the trust he has already received. Thus, Cohen uses Suzanne and Jesus as a vehicle to simultaneously convey that the speaker has faith in Suzanne as much as he does in Christ, and therefore as much faith in women as religion.

    In his song, "The Future," Cohen uses the apocalypse to convey that love is the only way to salvation. Cohen combines images, both sacred and profane, to reveal a stunning vision of the apocalypse and the means to salvation. In the second stanza, Cohen describes the apocalypse:

Things are going to slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned the order of the soul
When they said REPENT I wonder what they meant
(Cohen 17-22)
Order and meaning will disappear in this terrible apocalypse, according to the narrator. "Things are gonna slide in all directions" conveys that polarities established to categorize the world into two categories: God versus Satan, or good versus bad, will cross their pre-defined bounds. In other words, the dividing line between good and evil will obscure. Cohen then connects this to love:
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories heard them all
but love's the only engine of survival
Your servant here, he has been told
to say it clear to say it cold:
It's over, it ain't going any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
and you feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future it is murder.
(Cohen 34-42)
The narrator is saying that he has already heard the doctrines and mythologies that are supposed to be true. He dismisses these by stating that love is the only means to "survival", or salvation. 4 Goldman To the speaker, life without love is literally death. Cohen conveys this profound message within the context of the apocalypse.

    Leonard Cohen's most famous song, "Hallelujah," begins with King David discovering a specific chord that will please God. However, the king succumbs to desire:

Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.
(Cohen 11-13)
This allusion to David is intertwined with allusions to Samson and Delilah (Casey), as the poem goes on to tell how, "She broke your throne and she cut your hair" (Cohen 15). The speaker realizes that love is, in reality, not the triumph that he envisioned it to be: “Love is not a victory march / It’s a cold and it’s a broken / Hallelujah” (Cohen 18-20). In one of the stanzas Cohen added in 1988, the speaker describes sex through biblical imagery:
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
(Cohen 29-31)
Cohen's use of diction in the word "Hallelujah", which literally means "God be praised", illustrates that the love-making endeavor, and the spiritual proximity of the couple, was heavenly. The dove is used to represent peace in the biblical story of Noah in the Song of Solomon (Casey). Cohen invokes a classic biblical symbol, the dove, to simultaneously convey his love of God and women. Through symbolism, Cohen conveys that love is a manifestation of the divine, a portal to serenity and bliss.

    Although Cohen was born Jewish and practiced Buddhism, he oftentimes used Christian mythology in his writing despite never formally practicing the faith. Earlier in his life, however, he did attend mass with his Irish nanny while he lived in Montreal. This may have had an influence in Cohen’s obsession with Jesus Christ, which would serve as a centerpiece for much of his work as an artist and poet.

Works Cited

Casey, Thomas G. "'Hallelujah': The Beautiful, Broken Song of Leonard Cohen." America (2010): 21. America. Web. 3 Dec. 2016.
Cohen, Leonard. “Hallelujah” Various Positions. Columbia, 1984.
Cohen, Leonard. “Suzanne” Songs of Leonard Cohen. Columbia, 1967.
Cohen, Leonard. “The Future” The Future. Columbia, 1992.
O'Neil, Mary A. "Leonard Cohen, Singer of the Bible." Cross Currents (2015): 91. Gale PowerSearch. Web. 3 Dec. 2016.

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