#1 Leonard Cohen
This is, in our opinion, the most perfect lyric poem ever written. Written by Leonard Cohen, whose very name means “priest,” it is also famously sung, with slight alterations, by Judy Collins, the lady of the blue eyes. One night in Chicago, a woman named Judy played guitar until her fingers bled, while her friend was breaking a heart, and had she not continued, I would not have been introduced to this song, nor would I have seen one of the most beautiful words that in my life I will ever see. On another occasion, in Stratford, Ontario, I saw Judy Collins herself sing the song, and I believe she saw the tears streaming down my face, there a few rows back on her right: gracias, Judith.
Suzanne takes you down to her place by (near) the river;
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever (beside her);
And you know that she’s half crazy
And (but) that’s why you want to be there;
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China;
And just when mean to tell her that you have no love to give her,
Then she gets you on her wave length, and (she) lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover;
And you want to travel with her,
And you want to travel blind;
And you know that you can trust her (she will trust you)
For she’s (you’ve) touched your (her) perfect body with her (your) mind.
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower;
And when knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said, “All men shall be sailors then until the sea shall free them.”
But he himself was broken long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath Your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbor;
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers.
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning,
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.
To begin at the beginning, the song is written in the image of God that is Man, by which love between man and woman is patterned on the image of the relation between the soul and the divine. That all men shall be sailors is, as we recall from our beginning on the Jamaican seas, the truth about love and its agonies. “Until the sea shall free them” is the meaning of the suffering of love. That he himself was broken is the meaning of the incarnation. The divine name almost occurs when it is said “He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” I am surprised that your is not capitalized, as though he hides in the case.
One of many of the extraordinary features of this song is it’s use of the repetition of the lines of the first, second and third set of lines. to demonstrate how the meaning of what is spoken resonates in the same chord of the higher thing spoken about. That is, for example, “Suzanne takes you down…” is like “And Jesus was a sailor,” “To her place by the river where you can hear the boats go by” is like “When he walked upon the water” and so on, even through the entire song, so that the harmonies in the poetic analogy resonate within the harmonies of the music, or the sameness of the notes in each set becomes the sameness of the two things, the image and the thing reflected.
Suzanne has a place by the river, and she takes him there, where he can hear the boats go by, and might spend the night forever. She feeds him tea and Chinese oranges, as they are visiting. She is known to him to be “half crazy,” as I imagine, a bit like the actress Amy Sedaris, and in a way that even enhances the feminine spiritual beauty of this rare creature. It is indeed why he wants to be there drinking tea and having oranges with her by the river. These lines are paired with “only drowning men could see him,” for she is the madness of his soul that would allow him to sail over the water, and indeed, to see the Christ. Then, just when he intended to tell her that he could not love her, he falls in love, as she gets him on her wavelength and lets the river answer that he has in fact always been her lover. True love touches on or is an activity of the life of the immortal or always existing soul that is what each of us most truly is, and so it is in this that we are most alive. These lines are paired with the submission of Jesus, and it may be that what is broken by his submission to the love- in adultery is his ethical self esteem, broken by love.
In this case, it is said that this love was adulterous, which may have been the reason that he intended to tell her that he had no love for her, which turn out not to be true. The background, then, may be an excruciating conflict between love and religious law, which is of course always in the end somehow right.
The first ambiguity between the two versions with which I am working is on the question of whether it is he who touches her perfect body with his mind, or she who touches his perfect body with her mind. The perfect body is, as it seems, both erotically beautiful, as the body of the beloved appears to the lover, and the perfect body that goes with the immortal soul, that is, the body in the resurrection. The theory behind the tune is that the perfect body or the particular immortal soul is what is touched in true love.
The agony of the conflict between law and love apparently causes the apotheosis of the central section. The experience of the lover with Suzanne leads him to reflect that Jesus was a sailor, going across the sea of Galilee, when he walked upon the water. This is the scene (Matthew 14:22-33; John 6:14-21; Mark 6:45-51) where he comes to the Apostles who are in the boat, walking on the water. He had stayed behind at Capernaum when the Apostles had departed for the other shore. Then he came to them, and called Peter to walk out onto the water to him. Peter goes a little way on the water, then begins to sink, leading Jesus to comment on our lack of faith. Faith allows one to walk above the turbulent waters of the soul, to which one is exposed in love. The travel in a boat is also a kind of floating on the water, and Jesus is said to have been a sailor when he did this.
He is said to have spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower until he saw, or knew for certain, the truth that only drowning men could see him. This leads him to say that all men shall then be sailors until the sea shall free them, even of the mortal body the attachment of our souls to the things of the world and of the body.
That only drowning men can see him is a truth, and the reason that belief or opinion is common, while this seeing is rare. Men must be on the point of death, or of the sacrifice of all their own private or mortal concerns, in order to be able or clear enough to see the Christ. Our suggestion is that the near drowning of the sailors in love is equivalent to the death that is not quite a literal death, but by the way of penance leads to rebirth. In the final third of the song, the scene shifts to the morning, as Suzanne takes him walking by the river. The beauty of the spectacle of this woman dressed in rags and feathers is overwhelming, as the early morning sun on her is thick like golden honey.
The most astonishing spectacle is yet to come. There are heroes in the seaweed and children in the morning. The children in the morning are leaning out for love as plants lean toward the sun. They can do no other, and will continue to do this always. The heroes in the seaweed are the contrasting lovers, most, who did not make it, but are trapped in the seaweed of the appetites and drowned. It is she who “holds the mirror,” she who shows him this, reflected. This is how the soul sees, when the sky is opened. She is the soul, or an embodiment of the archetype Jung calls “Anima.”
There is some difference between the three versions of the song regarding the sequence of the spiritual touch of the perfect body with the mind. In one version, first he has touched her body with his mind, then Jesus is followed blind because He has touched our perfect body with his mind, and then She has touched his perfect body with her mind. The perfect body is the particular immortal soul, as in what lasts of us into the Resurrection.
The lover, or hero is touched by her, then ascends in the apotheosis, to be touched by Him, Jesus or even he who raised Jesus when he was himself broken. He then returns to touch her perfect body, and the kiss of love of the hero awakens the princess to immortal life as well. The lover goes in an image of the path of the Christ, and the essence of the drama of love is shown in its being an image of the relation between God and man. The lyric is called perfect because it follows the drama in its three parts and gives the principle in its refrain. This reveals the perfection or the truest natural end of the soul in love, and though it rarely occurs, it is what the children in the souls, the children of the sun, all seek, toward which they will lean forever when they lean out in love for love.
5 thoughts on “Suzanne Rock Commentaries IX Selection”
I remember hearing that beautiful mystical song, Suzanne, that Leonard Cohen wrote when I was living in Montreal. We first have Mary Martin to thank for introducing Leonard to Judy Collins in New York City, and then Judy for encouraging Leonard to sing Suzanne to her, and then in a club. He was petrified on stage and left halfway through it. She brought him back and they finished singing it together. There’s a YouTube video of that virginal performance. After she recorded that song, it launched Leonard’s career as a singer-songwriter.
BTW, there’s a small typo in the 17th line where you left out the word, he: “And when knew for certain”. It should read: “And when he knew for certain”.
You may know that the woman in the song “Suzanne” that Leonard wrote about was Suzanne Vaillancourt, the then wife of Quebec artist Armand Vaillancourt, a friend of Leonard’s. After they split, she went by Suzanne Verdal. She and Leonard shared a platonic relationship; it was never sexually consummated. It was a magical time when they were on the same deep loving wavelength. You’ve probably seen articles about it and the CBC interview.
I like the video where he tells of getting scammed on the rights to his hit song there- it caused him to go on tour before he died, crowning his career. All men shall be sailors, then, until the sea shall free them.
Not getting the rights to his song, Suzanne, is an old story. Who really ripped him off was his longtime manager, Kelley Lynch. She had embezzled more than $5 million from the 71-year-old’s accounts, while also surreptitiously selling many of Cohen’s publishing rights. That forced him to go on tour again. He ended up making way more money than the millions he had lost and made millions of fans around the world delirious with happiness. He was bigger than the biggest names in the industry on tour that year. I bought tickets for my nephew in LA to see him as a birthday gift. I ended up buying the DVDs of his concerts, like the one in London. Read Billboard’s great article about it. If it wasn’t for Kelley Lynch’s criminal actions the world would have never enjoyed the best of what Leonard Cohen had to offer us. The silver lining to it all! More like a golden lining!
The story is amusing, as he knows the song is inspired, and not his own, in a way. I’d bet the money rotted her pockets, too!