The Poem

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

“French and English” comprises fifty lines of mostly satirical free verse. In this poem Leonard Cohen attacks extremists in the political and linguistic dispute that began to intensify in Quebec during the early 1960’s. No explicit mention is made of this most distinctive of Canadian provinces in the poem, but Cohen grew up there in the 1950’s and 1960’s. His primary residence is now near Los Angeles, but he still maintains a home in Montreal. His own experiences in Quebec are clearly the inspiration for this poem. It is an attempt to shock, shame, and insult fanatics on both sides, encouraging everyone involved to find a peaceful solution to the escalating conflict.

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French Canadians and the language that they speak are subjected to rhetorical scorn in the first sixteen lines. For example, the extremely abstract thinking of French philosophers such as René Descartes is mocked as “inflamed ideas” and as “a theoretical approach/ to common body functions” caused by the French language. The domination of Quebec society before the 1960’s by the Roman Catholic Church is burlesqued by the reference to “a tacky priesthood devoted to the salvation/ of a failed erection.” Even the stereotype of poor dental care in Quebec is flung into the reader’s face. Quebeçois “pepsis” are ridiculed for drinking too much soda pop, causing the “rotten teeth of French.” Effective expression of the glorious goal of independence for Quebec is thus overwhelmed by bad teeth and halitosis.

The next fourteen-line segment of the poem is devoted to English, described as a “sterilized swine of a language that has no genitals.” Scatological images and references proliferate, identifying English-speaking people with “peepee and kaka and nothing else.” The stereotype of English culture as particularly reserved is lampooned by the implication that the English are hesitant to French kiss because they “are frightened by saliva.” As a final insult to conclude the stanza, the English are castigated as being “German with a licence to kill.”

The satirical assault on both French-and English-speaking Canadians continues in the third section of the poem. Together they are referred to as “boobies of the north” and “dead-hearted turds of particular speech.” However, an optimistic alternative is also invoked. The speaker proposes the possibility of communication beyond the built-in prejudices of any language and of salvation beyond politics. This positive alternative is sketched in a series of striking sexual, musical, and religious images. The poet suggests that kneeling “between the legs of the moon” and performing a sort of mystical cunnilingus is a better use for the human tongue than speaking either French or English. To escape the respective chauvinisms that are paralyzing Quebec, both francophone and anglophone extremists are invited to lift their voices musically, “like the wind harps you were meant to be.” Both sides could then awake into a “state of common grace.”

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

The speaker of this poem assumes the first-person point of view, using the personal pronoun “I” throughout. The poem doubtless expresses Leonard Cohen’s attitudes and feelings toward the conflict that is its subject. However, Cohen is speaking as it were through an angry puppet: He has adopted an extremely aggressive persona in order to dramatize his theme effectively. The persona of the speaker in “French and English” employs the rhetorical technique of hyperbole. He rants and raves in wild exaggeration, understood as such, in order to depict clearly the warped extremes each side tends to mirror in the other. He subverts the appeal and dissipates the hatred of French and English fanatics by turning them into ridiculous caricatures.

The primary rhetorical mode employed in this poem is satire. Satire was allegedly invented by the Greek cynic Menippus, whose works are lost. Since then it has been written in many formal variations, but the common element in all of them is attack. Public institutions, political parties, fashionable attitudes, even prominent individuals are held up for intense criticism in this way. Perhaps the best-known example of satire in English literature is “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift. In this parody of a political editorial, Swift proposed a radical solution to the problem of poverty in eighteenth century Ireland. His proposal was to sell the infants of poor Irish people to be cooked and eaten as an exotic delicacy for the tables of the ruling class. His point was to attack the callous attitude of certain people toward the suffering of those less fortunate than themselves.

The structure of “French and English” is based on the dialectical method originating with the Greek philosopher Socrates and developed more systematically in the nineteenth century by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx. The three stanzas of the poem correspond to the three stages in the dialectical evolution of an idea: the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The first stanza caricatures the attitude of the ruling class in Quebec. (Historically, English dominance dates from the defeat of the French by the English on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec City in 1759.) By virtue of their military dominance and the cooperation of the Roman Catholic Church, the English ruling class was able to prosper disproportionately.

The second stanza caricatures the antithetical reaction of the French majority, which intensified dramatically in the 1960’s. The power vacuum left by the declining influence of the Church and the global devolution of the British Empire has been filled to a great extent by the independence movement in Quebec politics. This movement arose in opposition to the thesis of the status quo. The synthesis in dialectical theory is created from the struggle between the thesis and the antithesis. The third stanza of “French and English” calls for a positive and peaceful resolution to the conflict. Such a possibility is imagined through the power of music, love, and spiritual awareness.

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Themes