French and English Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem focuses on the impasse of linguistic and cultural misunderstanding in Canada. Hugh MacLennan coined the expression “two solitudes” in his 1945 novel of the same title to refer to the psychological distance between the English and French communities. Though this problem, satirically described in parts 1 and 2, has become extremely political, the solution to it evoked in part 3 is not.

Parts 1 and 2 begin respectively with the same line, the last word only being changed: “I think you are fools to speak French/English.” Cohen seems to be implying that all people are fools when they depend on the formal peculiarities of any language. No language is adequate, by itself, to effect the miracle of human communication. Words are dead and useless unless they are animated by music, love, and spirit. The third stanza also begins with two practically identical lines, “I hate you but it is not in English/ I love you but it is not in French.” The poet is saying that the particular sound and/or written form of a word are incidental to its real significance. Both love and hate are essentially expressed by a language of the heart, which all people share.

Leonard Cohen is better known as a songwriter and singer than as a poet, and his reputation demonstrates his commitment to the musical element in language. His tunes are a protest against the “flat rhythms” of English. Without music, language becomes a trap, and “the lovers die in...

(The entire section is 456 words.)