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The original poem on which Cohen based his song, "Alexandra Leaving," he wrote on the Greek island of Hydra in 1999.
Cohen's "Alexandra Leaving" is based on a poem written by Constantine P. Cavafy, called "The God Abandons Antony" (also known as "God Forsakes Antony") in 1911. The poem referred to a story written by the Greek essayist and biographer Plutarch (46 – 120 CE) about Mark Antony who was...
The poem refers to the sounds Antony heard as a procession passed; Antony had been deserted by his patron god, Bacchus (Dionysus), and his reign over one of the most powerful cities in the world is gone.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
The poem refers to Antony's courage and his value as a soldier and leader. It is written literally about the fall of Alexandria and Mark Antony, but we can assume that Cohen (as we note the change from "Alexandria" to a woman's name "Alexandra") that the song is about the loss of a woman.
Whereas Cavafy's theme was based around the city of Alexandria, Cohen's version builds around a woman named Alexandra.
The night is growing colder because Alexandra is leaving or is no longer with the subject of the poem; seemingly she has left with an exceptional man—a "deity" (god). Alexandra may not literally be "hoisted on his shoulder," which is something done with an honored athlete or hero, but may simply be leaving with her arm draped over his shoulder. The ability of this "god" to win Alexandra away allows a pain through to the man's heart, which the subject of the poem has tried to protect.
Perhaps in this poem, the man recalls seeing Alexandra and her new love—there may be memories of Alexandra and this new man together—that may come to him while he is surrounded by people and drinking. Though the man may be tempted to pretend that his time with her was a dream, the speaker tells the man that it was real. The speaker tells the man not to take the coward's way out:
Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.
She may be a part of the man's past, and it may be painful to remember now that she is gone, but it was real. The speaker reminds the man that (here is an allusion to Antony at his fall in Alexandria) that he had the "honor" of her time, and that this something that validates the man—he was worthy of her:
You who had the honor of her evening,
And by that honor had your own restored---
It sounds as if the speaker is pointing out that the man is generally in control of everything he does, prepared for any contingency—even his mistakes. At the same time, it seems as if he expected that one day she would leave him. It has challenged—even destroyed his faith ("crucifix uncrossed"):
You who were bewildered by a meaning,
whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed---
However, there is no turning back, nothing can be changed: Alexandra is lost to him, as Alexandria was lost to Antony.
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