Captivity & Escape In Leonard Cohen’s Work: The Texts

Captivity & Escape In Leonard Cohen’s Work

The posting of the series featuring the and symbols triggered observations from three Cohen cognoscenti, Francis Mus, Tom Sakic, and David Peloquin, on the prevalence of imagery associated with slavery and captivity, such as chains, in Leonard Cohen’s work. Consequently, Cohencentric is offering , a set of posts organized around these themes. The first post in this series featured examples of emblems manifesting these concepts from Leonard Cohen albums, marketing, and merchandise (see Part 1 at Captivity & Escape In Leonard Cohen’s Work: Album Art). Today’s post focuses on these themes as they occur in the text of his songs and poems.

Update: See “I actually bound myself to the mast of non-attachment, but the storms of desire snapped my bounds like a spoon through noodles” Leonard Cohen

Captivity & Escape In Leonard Cohen’s Work: The Texts

Figurative language referring to captivity (e.g., slavery, chains, prison …) appears with extraordinary frequency in Leonard Cohen’s lyrics. While his pattern may be integrated into an analysis a few posts down the line, for the time being, I am content with making readers aware of the ubiquity of this motif in Leonard Cohen’s songs and poems (the novels and other prose are beyond the scope of this entry) by offering this impressive, albeit non-exhaustive (e.g., there are well over 100 references to slavery in Leonard Cohen’s poems alone), sampling:

Chains

Born In Chains
Popular Problems

I was born in chains but I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden, but the burden it was raised1

Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On
Death Of A Ladies’ Man

So I work in that same beauty salon
I’m chained to the old masquerade

Take This Waltz
I’m Your Man

And I’ll see what you’ve chained to your sorrow

Show Me The Place
Old Ideas

But there were chains, so I hastened to behave
There were chains, so I loved you like a slave

Who By Fire
New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?

I’m Your Man
I’m Your Man

Ah, the moon’s too bright
The chain’s too tight
The beast won’t go to sleep

The Old Revolution
Songs from a Room

I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.

Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
Songs of Leonard Cohen

but let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie,

Love Calls You By Your Name
Songs of Love and Hate

You say they chained you to your fingernails
and you climb the halls of fame

Oh here, come over here,
between the windmill and the grain,
between the sundial and the chain,
between the traitor and her pain,
once again, once again,
love calls you by your name.

You Live Like A God
Selected Poems 1956-1968

it’s an evening in October,
no one is writing our history.
Whoever holds us here in the midst of a Law,
I hear him now
I hear him breathing
as he embroiders gorgeously our simple chains.

An Orchard Of Shore Trees
The Spice-Box of Earth

a cat o’ nine tails
made of dark chain
punishing the silken water

The New Leader
Flowers for Hitler

after years of threading history’s crushing daisy-chain2 of with beauty after beauty

Portrait Of The City Hall
Flowers for Hitler

They are singing like men in chains.

Prayer For Messiah
Let Us Compare Mythologies

O sing from your chains where you’re chained in a cave

The Law
Various Positions

I fell with my angel
Down the chain of command3

33
Book of Mercy

They have a number for him, and a chain. Let him see them withered in the light of your name.

Not Knowing Where To Go
Book of Mercy

Blessed are you who brings chains out of the darkness.

4
Book of Mercy

I went out of the house to rescue the angel of song from the place where she had chained herself to her nakedness.

Every Pebble
Stranger Music

Because I dream that there are chains
I dream there is release
I told this to the prisoner
Who killed the man I hate

Orion (commentary)
Death of a Lady’s Man

… clinging to a plot, chained to the Hunt, tyrannized by a static vision of Heaven, Lucifer’s addiction to light and his .subsequent fall from grace so he might define himself forever

Nothing Has Been Broken
Parasites of Heaven

Though one of the links of the chain
is a blue butterfly

The Rebellion (commentary)
Death of a Lady’s Man

All is calm now. I chained myself to the stone floor for an hour and a half.

O Wife Unmasked
Death Of A Lady’s Man

O wires and rays and chains
What channels of intense air
trembling to a signal

Prison/Prisoner

Feels So Good
Unreleased

It’s like they tore away my blindfold and they said,
We’re gonna let this prisoner live

The Old Revolution
Songs from a Room

I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.

You Want It Darker
You Want It Darker

They’re lining up the prisoners
The guards are taking aim

Every Pebble
Stranger Music

Because I dream that there are chains
I dream there is release
I told this to the prisoner
Who killed the man I hate

The Land Of Plenty
Ten New Songs

For the millions in a prison
That wealth has set apart

Light As The Breeze
The Future

And it ain’t exactly prison
But you’ll never be forgiven
For whatever you’ve done
With the keys

You Got Me Singing
Popular Problems

You got me singing
Like a prisoner in a jail
You got me singing
Like my pardon’s in the mail

On The Sickness Of My Love
Flowers for Hitler

She has put aside cosmetics.
She is a prison of truth

Here Was The Market…
Parasites of Heaven

… they seemed not so much vendors as kapos, prison trustees, favourites of the slaughter house who had been spared for their capacity to work

Now I Come Before You
Death of a Lady’s Man

Glory to your perfect prison
Glory to your perfect hell

When Even The
Stranger Music

Soldiers don’t.
Prisoners don’t.

O Wife Unmasked
From Death Of A Lady’s Man

Can we recover
The course that jerks her upward
Seized prisoner of the stars

The House (Commentary)
Death Of A Lady’s Man

… the fortress of the enemy where he himself is held prisoner

I Believe You Heard Your Master Sing
Parasites of Heaven

O love did you come back to bring
Your prisoner wine and bread

Ballad
Let Us Compare Mythologies

the person guarded his mouth
who saw the poker blacken the eyes
of the Roman prisoner

Bind/Bound

Ballad Of The Absent Mare
Recent Songs

So he binds himself to the galloping mare
And she binds herself to the rider there

Sisters Of Mercy
Songs Of Leonard Cohen

They will bind you with love

If It Be Your Will
Various Positions

And draw us near
and bind us tight

The Unicorn Tapestries
The Spice-Box of Earth

Or charm the guards to untie the chains
With which I was bound before the hunt,

Tie

Tower Of Song
I’m Your Man

They tied me to this table right here in the tower of song

Hallelujah
Various Positions

She tied you to a kitchen chair.
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair

Waiting For The Miracle
The Future

But, you see, my hands were tied.

The Night Comes On
Various Positions

I’m tied to the threads of some prayer.

Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
Songs of Leonard Cohen

but let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie,

The Unicorn Tapestries
The Spice-Box of Earth

Or charm the guards to untie the chains
With which I was bound before the hunt,

The Night Comes On
Various Positions

I’m tied to the threads of some prayer.

Lock/Key

They Locked Up A Man
The Energy of Slaves

They locked up a man
Who wanted to rule the world
The fools
They locked up the wrong man

Stories Of The Street
Songs Of Leonard Cohen

O stranger at your wheel
You are locked into your suffering
And your pleasures are the seal

The Night Comes On
Various Positions

We were locked in this kitchen; I took to religion,

Lover Lover Lover
New Skin For The Old Ceremony

He said, “I locked you in this body,
I meant it as a kind of trial.

Coming Back To You
Various Positions

And the fields they’re under lock and key

Light As The Breeze
The Future

For whatever you’ve done
With the keys

My Honour
Stranger Music

My lawyer took my .32 away
And locked it in the safe.

The Suit
Flowers For Hitler

I am locked in a very expensive suit

She Salutes Me Again
Death of a Lady’s Man

I have locked myself in here for a week.

Two Went To Sleep
Parasites of Heaven

Two friends asleep
Years locked in travel

Orion (Commentary)
Death Of A Lady’s Man

He is not locked, he is sealed

Now I Come Before You
Death of a Lady’s Man

They lock me in a harness

The New Step: A Ballet-Drama In One Act
Flowers for Hitler

The sound of a key in the lock. Door opens

This Marriage (Commentary) –
Death of a Lady’s Man

This marriage is locked. it is impossible to enter.

Magic Is Alive
Stranger Music

Though they locked their coffers G-d was always served.

36
Book of Mercy

… and you locked me down to self-mockery.

Pardon

I Came So Far For Beauty
Recent Songs

And broken bones to teach
The value of my pardon

The Embrace
Stranger Music

There is no king to pardon you;
His mercy is more intimate

Early This Morning
Death of a Lady’s Man

I affirmed she was the one
Instantly the pardon came.

36
Book of Mercy

I go to ask for pardon from the Most High.

Shackles

True Love Leaves No Traces
Death Of A Ladies’ Man

Like arrows with no targets
Like shackles made of snow

Fence

30
Book of Mercy

because there is no fence in their heart

14
Book of Mercy

Who made a fence of changing stars around your wisdom. Blessed be the teacher of my heart, on his throne of patience.

Release

This Is For You
Parasites of Heaven

You are the woman
Who released me

The Idols Of The Lord
Death of a Lady’s Man

Make her ask
me for release

Slave

Style
Flowers for Hitler

I don’t believe love
in the midst of my slavery

Show Me The Place
Old Ideas

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go

Democracy (Unused verse)
The Future

Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay?
Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?

You Know Who I Am
Songs From A Room

You cannot follow me
I am not life I am not death
I am not slave or free
You know who I am

On That Day
Dear Heather

They hate us of old
Our women unveiled
Our slaves and our gold

Sentence

First We Take Manhattan
I’m Your Man

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom

The Rebellion
Death of a Lady’s Man

I rebelled against my sentence in the garden.

Police Gazette
Flowers for Hitler

Judge runs a finger between neck and collar- hands the sentence down.

I Knelt Beside A Stream
Death of a Lady’s Man

I broke under the sentence of loneliness and the wound of my beautiful twin.

Guard

I Knelt Beside A Stream
Death of a Lady’s Man

And you are the winners. You are the guards. And even the butchers above you are not in command.

Another Man’s Woman
Death of a Lady’s Man

… the Iron Guard marching between us
So you come to me now in the form of one whom I cannot approach.

The Asthmatic
Death of a Lady’s Man

Because you have commanded the guards to shut down the doors and take away breathing. Because the world is stamped with order, like a seal in formless wax.

Leash

Why Don’t You Try
New Skin For The Old Ceremony

Do you need to hold a leash to be a lady?
I know that you can make it, you can make it on your own.

Convict

Steer Your Way
You Want It Darker

To the one who was never never equal to the task
Who knows he’s been convicted, who knows he will be shot

Babylon – Captivity

The linkage of “Babylon” and “Captivity” is such a well established literary convention that including it in this listing is not only justified but necessary.

By The Rivers Dark
Ten New Songs

By the rivers dark I wandered on.
I lived my life in Babylon.
And I did forget my holy song:
and I had no strength in Babylon.

_______________________

  1. Tom Sakic points out that the lyrics of Born in Chains were worked and reworked in 1984-1988 on few occasions. Leonard also quotes lines from the song in 1988 and 1992. []
  2. Initially, I didn’t plan to include “chain” used as as part of a another word, but “crushing daisy-chain” seems to fit. []
  3. Again, I didn’t plan to include “chain” used as as part of a another word or term, but, again, “chain of command” seems to fit. []