“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 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.”
Forms and Devices
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...
(The entire section is 961 words.)