Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

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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 all your songs.” The reader is invited to escape from the trap with the help of “other voices” in order to find a common “mother tongue/ and be awakened by a virgin.” The reference to oral sex ten lines earlier is still fresh in the reader’s mind when it is extended, transformed, and combined in this line with an image of spiritual reawakening or rebirth. The radical juxtaposition and intertwining of sexual and spiritual images in the third stanza is typical of Cohen’s writing. Sexual communication and spiritual awareness are understood as two inseparable aspects of love.

Fanatical French and English partisans in Quebec are attacked in this poem from the point of view of the fundamental force of life, sex, which requires no particular language. They are also attacked from the point of view of the enlightened spirit that can transcend ordinary language. Though Cohen is Jewish and has studied Zen Buddhism for many years, the references here are mainly to the spiritual tradition of Christianity. The poem concludes with the image of prisoners of “particular speech” being resurrected by the intercession of a virgin, presumably Mary. The possibility of political and linguistic peace in Quebec is thereby affirmed as a potential benefit flowing from the “grace” of God.