Postmodern Conservative

Leonard Cohen’s Defense of Wounded Love

Here's how to recover a good reputation for love poetry

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord

that David played, and it pleased the Lord,

but you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this: The fourth, the fifth,

the minor fall, the major lift—

the baffled king composing Hallelujah!

Leonard Cohen is an ambitious singer and this is his most ambitious love song. Summoning King David is the obvious choice: God’s favorite poet and God’s favorite sinner. David and God both love music; unlike the audience of Cohen’s song, apparently. So Cohen quietly defends poetry: He says some music is simply pleasing to the Lord, before mentioning the song of praise, the hallelujah. He also defends singing explicitly, which is surprising: The secret chord is apparently neither complicated nor secret.

I suspect this is a love song a lover is addressing to a wary or suspicious beloved. In such cases, there may be no arbiter but God. Another surprise: Why bring David into this? After all, he’s God’s favorite sinner, not only God’s favorite poet. This is an implicit admission of guilt. The beloved has reason to suspect the lover. This suggests a loss of innocence.

The stanzas, sextets, are split in halves that tend to be run-on sentences contradicting each other quietly. Behold: There will be music, even if we’re told the addressee does not care for music — perhaps the tasting will create the taste? We’re not told why there should be music. Instead, the singer takes us into his confidence. We learn musical craft. The singer insists on powerfully consonant intervals (fourth and fifth); uplifting music requires first dissonance, then resolution. What is he confessing? Could ecstasy be made up, to get people who don’t like music to like it, and therefore like the singers? Is the craft exploitative? Is the story of David the singer anything else than seduction? David in this story might be baffled by what craft elicits in him; or bafflement might be the true cause of the craft. Is there any innocence to love, which might be preserved or even proclaimed by the craft?

Your faith was strong, but you needed proof,

you saw her bathing on the roof:

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you!

She tied you to a kitchen chair,

she broke your throne, and she cut your hair,

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah!

Now David is compared to Samson. They’re both warriors, enslaved by beautiful women, and brought to harm or ruin, having broken faith with God. Samson had a taste for Philistines at that! How is this a sequel? It follows from the innocence and failure of love. This ties up with faith: Do faith in God and beauty have much in common? Does beauty lead people into sin? Love is naturally attended by song. Is it doomed? In a sense, we’re all poets: We say what we see when we fall in love — are we lying to ourselves? Does beauty cause mania in the innocent? The image of beauty here suggests secrecy and maybe a violation of privacy. Faith is in danger.

Now, the singer previously knew David’s secret; now he changes his tune: He likens his audience to the Jewish warrior-rulers. Maybe we’re all in it together as lovers? Disappointed lovers who no longer trust music? Once bitten, twice shy? Perhaps the second beginning of poetry is what we are told rather than how it sounds in our ears.

These two new scenes are sublime and banal — moonlit roofs and kitchen chairs! Music can surpass this jokingly jarring change of scene. But can eroticism? Apparently: King David’s throne appears in the middle of Samson’s story. Why the mix-up? Most men have no more throne than a kitchen chair, for one. But domesticity conceals something serious: Woman moves from being looked at to acting. Love unmans men: Cut hair recalls the lowly and weak who cannot have beautiful locks; and also mourning, when nature’s beautiful gift is rejected. The tendency is to more intimacy and it seems damning.

The throne is the authority, not the power of a king. It is supposed to be public, by daylight, not secretive, by night. On this broken throne is built the education of the singer or poet. Who rejects or simply wishes to undo his undoing at the hands of love cannot truly learn about the power of love. It has to be felt, endured, even contemplated. Perhaps authority has to be put aside to listen to this author. The proud aloofness of man’s warlike rule, legitimated by God, is a challenge to eros. How then can woman draw from man the song of praise for God? By weakness.

Maybe there’s a God above,

as for me, all I’ve ever learned from love

is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.

Yeah, but it’s not a cry that you hear at night,

it’s not some pilgrim who claims to have seen the light,

no, it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah!

A new change, suddenly, from you to me, from vetero-testamentary stories to confession. Craft and lore are abandoned. Those stories were needed to establish common ground; making sense of them would awaken the experience of love and give some authority to a discredited singer or poet. That done, the poet takes a new, skeptical attitude. Why the newfound dubiety? To recover the experience of fear in love. Biblical stories may be too reassuring — unlike the faithful, the wavering or the suffering may therefore reject them. In that sense, all people are faithful. They expect God to guarantee a safe happiness for their loves.

The motion from music to women to seduction fits my suggestion: Seduction is presented as education. How is the failure of love a learning experience? It’s not beautiful, but some good may come of it. This starts cynically: Poetry is the self-defense of lovers. What is being learned? That love is a wound and it requires fighting off someone instead of loving them. Outrdrawing the lover is a Western gun-slinging image of the experience of falling in love — a woman’s glance or the look of her is enough to cause love. The shooting refers to seduction. The experience of love is that it is unrequited: Injustice has to be answered with injustice, lest lover be enslaved to beloved. Love is a war — unwitting victims must turn into witty victors.

This education, however, is a kind of torture. The second half contradicts the ambition of war. It presents men who find their loneliness unbearable. This time, the song of praise to God implies a request to be delivered from loneliness. Love’s power is now felt by its absence or failure: The song of praise is therefore cold and broken. People might learn from love that life is not worth living. Death sometimes follows on heartbreak . . . The singer quarrels with the pilgrims in the name of love’s victims, not her victors. Why? Because claiming to have seen the light is inseparable from leading people to it. Recall the Pilgrim fathers that replace the gunslingers: Puritans put their hearts into criminalizing sin. Lovers were not understood as victims, as with our poet, but as criminals. Hence the skepticism.

Baby, I’ve been here before:

I know this room, I’ve walked this floor,

I used to live alone before I knew you,

and I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,

but listen, love — love is not some kind of victory march,

no, it’s a cold and it’s a very lonely Hallelujah!

This is the first direct address to a beloved. Again, the condition for addressing one’s beloved is the distinction between private and public, between secrets and authority, between the banal and the sublime. Love implies a kind of reciprocity that experience rarely confirms — poetry makes up the difference. We knew failed love makes men incredulous, but now we’re beginning a new half of the poem with a completed shift: It is the addressee who flies the flag; it is the singer or poet who disbelieves. The defeated lover alone can say, Love is not war and there is no victory march, therefore. There is more truth in the loneliness of the failed lover than in the enthusiasm of the successful one. The song of love gives succor to the wounded — not wings to the proud. Maybe beautiful songs compensate for ugly experiences. But that does not account for the source of beautiful songs.

Now, let’s briefly take the architectural imagery seriously: This is politics. The first half-stanza is about the house of the lonely: We all live there, ulnerable to love — openness to love precedes any actual experience, including failure. That awareness fends off the grandeur of the second half: Addressing the beloved as love itself, the lover blames love’s pageantry, what is called idealism. Like the reverse demonization suggested by the Pilgrims, it makes for tyranny. The pride of love triumphant is a perpetual threat. Eroticism might lead to a rebellion against the order of God; and not just in the Sixties. The cold, lonely song of praise is man’s authentic relation to God, devoid of political ambitions.

There was a time you let me know

what’s really going on below,

ah, but now you never even show it to me, do you?

Yeah, but remember when I moved in you,

and the holy dove, she was moving too,

and every single breath that we drew was Hallelujah!

This is the erotic verse. After all, how remove eros from the human desire for union or togetherness? The two halves of the stanza serve to show that sex is about separating people, as past and present are separate, not bringing them together. What makes up the difference? Hope in God. Hence the implicit separation between below and above and their togetherness in breath. Here, the beautiful serves the good. Nothing is as obvious about togetherness as children. This is tied up with praising God because it recalls creation — without the breath of life, love were groundless.

Now, the poem has a double structure. The stanzas are obviously paired: Two about David; two in direct address, rejecting the teaching, typical of Greek poets, that love is war (the stanzas’ concluding lines have significant repetitions); and two final stanzas about memory. What turns around the middle is the past: We get a mythical and then an experiential account of the past. For the Bible to make sense of love for you, love has to matter to you.

But the latter three stanzas are obviously one conversation; the unity of the former three is about Biblical stories about war and love. (The first and fourth stanzas start with beginning words.) So there is also a thematic correspondence: The first and the fourth stanzas are about the political dimensions of love — they connect the song of praise to the Lord and the edifice of authority. The second and the fifth stanzas are about eroticism in secrecy: We may say that the beautiful and the good are separate here — in this fifth stanza, creation emerges, the generative power of love; what appeared in the second was ghostly. Behold the only instance of a neo-testamentary image — the holy dove. Lovers are not just about sex — they’re asking for a miracle.

I did my best, it wasn’t much,

I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch,

I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.

and even though it all went wrong,

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!

Love seems to have failed. Why talk about failure? To say what one has learned. Feeling and touching distinguish two levels of eroticism: The suggestion is, a lack of sensitivity leads people to get grabby! This is apparently not rare. What’s striking is, apparently it does not prevent man from giving praise to God. The failure of love may be a condition for giving praise to God — it certainly humbles pride!

This concluding stanza gives the practical meaning of the polemical third stanza. It corrects the miseducation about love: Skepticism is really the natural arena of faith. The suffering of love and the daring to give a truthful account make us credible. The failure of love gives clarity about what is expected of love, which is living for the sake of a miracle. Truth-telling, unlike using speeches to get something, which is typical of seduction, is important because it relates poet and God. God created the world by speech, after all. All songs are songs about creation, after all. There is a divine sanction for poetry.

Titus Techera hosts the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast. He is a Claremont Institute Fellow and a contributor to Law & Liberty.

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