The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 474 words.)