Leonard Cohen’s archetypal place near the river

Here are the lyrics of one of Leonard Cohen’s most well-known songs:


Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
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 you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
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 she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with 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 he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will 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 harbour
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.

(Written by Leonard Cohen, released in 1968 on Songs of Leonard Cohen.)

Why do I call this place near the river archetypal? Because it seems something of a locus amoenus, that kind of place we all find beautiful, we all long for.

The woman named Suzanne and Jesus obviously have a parallel effect on the poetic ‘you’ this addresses. Much could be interpreted into this (and probably has been).

A beautiful, suggestive song that has stayed with me for over thirty years, when I had a girlfriend who would come to my place and insist that I put on the record with this song. We would lie down, hold each other tight and fall asleep to Leonard Cohen.

The following video shows a long-haired Cohen perform the song at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970:

About James Steerforth

I am an author of poetry and fiction, translator and painter who loves to have fun with borrowed feathers.
This entry was posted in Life, Love, Lyrics, Music, Poetry, Stellar poetry and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Leonard Cohen’s archetypal place near the river

  1. suburbanlife says:

    This is a beautiful poem/song, James – thanks for posting this and showing how this song has seeped into your experience and memory. it’s odd, but I googled the lyrics a little while ago and thought I heard that gravelly voice of cohen in my mind as I was reading, even his voice reminds of the river!

  2. Yes, that gravelly voice is indeed like the river. Great observation.

    The trust theme (“travel blind”) is also supported tremendously by Cohen’s low voice – which goes right to the “gut” – and the fact that he seems right there, in the microphone, so to speak, very intimately.

    I find it interesting, too, that Cohen’s communion with woman comes before spiritual communion. Very typically Cohen.

  3. Great song…Cohen is a master of lyrics…so poetic, so deep. Nice analysis.

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