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Athabasca University

Leonard Cohen and the Romantic: Is He or Isn't He?

by David Brundage

In my understanding of Romanticism and especially of Romanticism from a Biblical stance, I am particularly indebted to the teaching of Blake scholar E.J. Rose.

One of Canada’s most widely loved writers is Leonard Cohen. Maritime poet George Elliot Clarke commented recently that Cohen plays an important role in sustaining the Romantic tradition (41 mins). Clarke was thinking in particular of Cohen’s emphasis on intimate feelings and use of rhyme and metre, notable in an era when most "serious" poets prefer intellectual forms of free verse. In this brief discussion, we cannot explore all the standard features associated with Romanticism, or how certain ones may figure in Cohen, but we can get the process underway; above all, we can signal his Romantically-inclined belief in the individual imagination as a vehicle for change.

In 1961, scholar R. Barzun suggested that Romanticism is "the most remarkable example" of a term that means whatever it suits the user to have it mean (qtd. by Whitney). Many people today use "romantic" simply to mean "sentimental." Because the European Romantic movement took so many twists and turns, a multitude of claims inevitably arises. It is generally agreed, however, that English Romanticism reacted against the era of Neoclassicism that dominated England during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. This movement valued the artistic ideals of classical Greece and Rome: emotional restraint, order, logic (which may well exclude the supernatural), technical precision, elevated subjects or mock elevation of pedestrian subjects, balance, elegance of diction, emphasis on form over content, clarity, dignity, and decorum. Imagination was thought of as a mirror, a reflector of existing reality. One way to begin thinking about Romantic expression is to imagine what the opposite of each of the preceding terms might be.

Ideas commonly associated with Romanticism are subjectivity, emotion (notably emotional extremes), individualism, the content of everyday and common life (not treated mockingly), intuition and the unconscious, spontaneity, yearning for the sublime, freedom from rules (artistic and social), solitary life, supernatural reality, emotional devotion to beauty, love and worship of nature (which can encompass human nature and sexuality), and fascination with the past, especially with notions of a Medieval "golden age." A radically new understanding of the imagination arises with Romanticism: rather than a mirror, imagination becomes seen as a lamp, a power that half-creates the world it illumines. Those who know Cohen’s writing may already see how, in certain ways and to certain extents, he expresses a number of these ideas.

Although not all would agree, it could be argued that the first English Romantic was John Milton (1608-1674). Highly educated, a master of languages, nevertheless Milton was not content to accept the status quo of previous generations, either for himself or his society. He became embroiled in political controversy, defended Cromwell’s execution of Charles I, and was imprisoned once monarchy was restored. Adding to this hardship, he then went blind and was obliged to write his masterpieces in isolation and poverty. Milton is one of the writers Cohen has singled out as an "embodiment of our highest possibility." (de Lisle, pt. 70) For many Romantics, art is a method of dealing with a personal cross. Cohen’s equivalent of John Milton’s imprisonment and blindness is clinical depression. This personal struggle stands for Cohen as an imaginative parallel to the struggles of so many others in society over issues of illness, poverty, bigotry, and war.

Milton notwithstanding, it is generally agreed that the English Romantic period runs from 1790 or so to 1850. This encompasses the working life of the major English Romantic poets beginning with William Blake (1757-1827). This time span excludes the roots and after-traces of Romanticism, but it does signal an important connection between Romanticism and social upheaval, as the French Revolution raged from 1789 to 1799.

Romantic poets tended not only to sympathize with the struggle for liberty but, as mentioned, to uphold the power of the individual imagination as the central agent of struggle. Blake understood the imagination to be, at least in part, a conduit of images from a profounder, mysterious reality—from beyond the daily self. In a letter of July 6, 1803, Blake refers to his recently completed poem Milton and says: "I may praise it since I dare not pretend to be any other than the Secretary the Authors are in Eternity" (Blake 730). Leonard Cohen expresses much the same definition of imagination when he says that "anybody who writes songs knows that it’s nothing they command. You are the instrument of something else" (Boucher 190). Cohen calls poetry "psychic reality" requiring, for appreciation, a faculty beyond reason. In response to social oppression, this understanding of mind and reality places a radical emphasis on spiritually-charged and transformative artistic values over the dominant "scientific" ones.

Blake’s poem Milton involves a personal relationship between Milton ’s spirit and Blake; Blake narrates the poem to us, directly, through highly personal, individualistic language. The voice and personal experiences of Blake convey an important part of the meaning. Leonard Cohen similarly refers to highly personal content through an intimate, individualistic voice. Interestingly, Cohen, like Blake and other Romantic poets, attempted to write drama for theatre but did not appear suited to the enterprise. The deeply intimate nature of Romantic impulses seems to invite a direct relationship with the listener or reader, requiring personal presence. Individual imagination, after all, officiates in the ceremony of muse, artist, and society. Romanticism is thus partly about the role of personal voice.

In one of his most famous Romantic-sounding lines, Cohen says "I have tried in my way to be free" ("Bird on a Wire," Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967). In a recent book, David Boucher presents Cohen’s bohemian-style rebellion as a natural consequence of 1960s’ social change with its motto of "find yourself." Cohen’s rebellion followed an anti-intellectual current imported to America from various Romantic sources. Though university educated, Cohen considered formal programs as "passion without flesh" (Boucher 51); Blake put the matter no less forcefully: "Thank God I never was sent to school/ To be flogd into following the style of a Fool" (qtd. in Ackroyd 23). The Romantic writer-hero prefers the proverbial university of life.

Many of us associate the consequences of Romantic rebellion with psychotic-style imagery and self-destruction—with what Sandra Djwa calls "black Romanticism" (Djwa 94). In rebuttal, Romantics might say that blackness naturally occurs as the imagination, proceeding through the university of life, captures and casts off lower parts of the self. This is a form of catharsis or expiation, sometimes associated with the dark night of the soul of mystical traditions. For all the personal dark deviations and near despair that he acknowledges, Cohen carries on, in the style of jaded, reluctant prophet. In 1966, the Boston Globe hailed Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers as the equal of Modernist master James Joyce (Boucher 14). Yet Cohen turned his back on the prestige of literary novel-writing for the perceived "sell-out" of pop songwriter. To quote David Boucher, Cohen’s decision to take the low road of "rock and roll poet" could reflect a desire, shared with certain "literary" figures like the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) "to restore poetry’s place among the lived experiences of the everyday life of the community" (Boucher 5). Despite initial impressions, Cohen’s songs and life choices ultimately do not elevate defeat or despair.

Given that the Romantic artist rebels against unfeeling constraints to growth and liberty, he or she is, as Cohen says of himself, a "personal resistor" (Boucher 43). Repeatedly in Cohen’s writings we find metaphors of a soldier fighting, however hopelessly, against the rival force. An interesting example occurs in the song "In My Secret Life:"

Hold on, hold on, my brother
My sister, hold on tight.
I finally got my orders.
I'll be marching through the morning,
Marching through the night,
Moving cross the borders
Of My Secret Life.

(from Ten New Songs, 2002)

The Romantic warrior selects from personal experience the weapons he or she feels will serve, forges them in imagination, and marches forth. How much this resembles the declaration of William Blake:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem ,
In England ’s green & pleasant land.

(Preface to Milton)

In conclusion, Cohen’s work does contain Romantic features: references to the Medieval courtly tradition (including archaic words such as "thee"); a tendency to beautify (and perhaps falsify) subjects (see Boucher’s analysis of the lyric "Suzanne," 191); a penchant for musical, magical devices, such as rhythm and rhyme, and for populist interventions (the pop chansonier); an emphasis on ordinary subjects and situations (often given an extraordinary twist); a concern with emotional extremes; immersion in nature (in this case, human nature and sexuality); a quest for self-identity, atonement and God; a personal resistance to societal ills; and a prophetic dimension—not only in signaling wrongs but in suggesting spiritual requirements for renewal. But does Cohen’s work also reflect Neoclassical "virtues," such as dignity, decorum, elegance, and above all, balance? Are there reasons— not least the major influences of Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism— for considering that while a knowledge of Romanticism helps us to appreciate Leonard Cohen, this knowledge takes us only so far?

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. London: Reed, 1995.

Blake, William. Letter to Thomas Butts. July 6, 1803. in Erdman, David. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. New York: Random House, 1965. rev. 1988, 729-31.

Blake, William. Preface to Milton. in Erdman, David. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. New York: Random House, 1965. rev. 1988, 95-96.

Boucher, David. Dylan and Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll. London: Continuum, 2004.

Clarke, George Elliot. Remarks as guest speaker. Kennedy, Paul. "A Nobel Prize for Leonard Cohen." CBC Ideas, Thursday, August 4, 2005. 38-44 mins.

de Lisle, Tim. "70 Things You May Not Know About Leonard Cohen." Friday Arts Review. The Guardian. September 17, 2004.

Djwa, Sandra. "Leonard Cohen, Black Romantic." In Gnarowski, M. Ed. Leonard Cohen: The Artist and His Critics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1976.

Whitney, Elizabeth . "What Is Romanticism?" English Department, University of Houston. Ret. 15 August 2005.

For Further Reading

Abrams, M.H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Austen, Jane. Emma. London: Penguin, 1986
Published in 1815 (during the heyday of Romanticism), Austen’s novel provided the basis for the 1995 film Clueless. Both the novel and the film reflect Austen’s recognition of moderation and sensibility, of tempering Romantic yearning and of balancing emotional and practical aspirations. In style and content, Austen’s work stands remarkably apart from the Romantic revolution taking place as she wrote. This is a good example of how the Romantic and Neoclassical spirits may easily co-exist within time periods.

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London: Penguin, 1995.
First published in 1845, this extraordinary novel can be read, on one hand, as a survey and critique of Romanticism. The two dominant characters — Catherine and Heathcliff — are often likened to Byronic lovers. Bronte’s descriptions of Wuthering Heights — where Cathy and Heathcliff grow up — epitomize Romantic attributes. Thrushcross Grange, as described by Bronte, epitomizes Neoclassical attributes. Along with its other rewards, this novel — arguably one of the masterpieces of English fiction — provides a deep and comprehensive meditation on the European divided self, and as part of that meditation, on the values and limits of the Romantic outlook. For brief commentary on women and Romanticism, see the note below under Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1989.
Originally published in 1850 as the English Romantic period was morphing into the Victorian, this classic bildungsroman contains the condescending and self-centred villain James Steerforth, a satire of the self-obsessed Romantic whose restless energy cannot be fulfilled. Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, Dickens' personal letters contain admissions that he, too, felt driven by a sublime something beyond his grasp.

Green, Garrett. "The Mirror, the Lamp, and the Lens: On the Limits of Imagination." Connecticut College.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction. Toronto: OUP, 1988.
Hutcheon includes a chapter ("The Early Postmodernism of Leonard Cohen," 26-43) identifying ways in which Cohen’s second novel, Beautiful Losers can be read as Postmodern. She emphasizes the extent to which the "text refers to itself as a text" (29), a notably Neoclassical intellectual game-playing tendency. Ironic playfulness of this nature has long been an element of English fiction, however, remarkable in early novels like Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1767) and highly practiced by Joyce. Whether Cohen, with Beautiful Losers, should really be called a Postmodernist while Joyce remains seen as entirely Modernist, may seem a question for a long summer evening with nothing much else to do. If literary critics have found a term more nebulous than Romanticism, it is surely Postmodernism. Many of the claims made for Postmodernism appear equally true of work by Modernists as well as by writers as early as Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400). There is a definite problem in trying to categorize literary style and spirit too exclusively by chronology and by seeking too many chronological divisions into so- called "new ages." The critic Owen Barfield, drawing on the spiritual- historical ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), argues for a certain limited number of key points when substantive changes of direction did occur— when new wine, requiring new skins, was introduced. Critics with this outlook might see Modernism and Postmodernism (at least, as currently demonstrated) simply as one period of Modernist reassembling of Romanticism and Neoclassicism, a period of stock-taking at the end of an era, a moment singularly lacking in any definite sense of what is coming next. Many, however, would question this opinion and insist that Postmodernism is, indeed, its own era. For a summary of attributes assigned to Modernism and Postmodernism, see the listed Websites of Professor John Lye.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Oxford: OUP, 2001.
Published in 1916, hailed as one of the first and foremost books in the new movement of Modernism, Joyce’s writing incorporates certain features of Romanticism but subsumes them to a rising tide of skepticism, which becomes darker in later Modernist work affected by the atrocities of the twentieth century. In Portrait, Joyce deals with the perceived weakening of organized, established religion and posits the Romantic alternative of an artist-hero emerging to do spiritual battle. But will he meet the challenge? Unlike more Romantic authors, Joyce creates considerable distance between himself and his subject (even when the protagonist is largely based on himself), and provides less certainty or optimism than Blake Wordsworth, or Shelley. Nevertheless, Joyce exemplifies how Romantic attributes can merge with Neoclassical and others within a single author. In some respects, Modernism and its successor—so-called Postmodernism—simply represent various reconfigurations of the Romantic and Neoclassical spirits.

When it likened Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers to the works of James Joyce, the Boston Globe was thinking primarily of Modernist qualities: startling realism, innovative and disorienting narrative experiments, a twentieth century tone of irony and absurdity.

Lye, John. "Some Attributes of Modernist Literature." Brock University. Retrieved August 20, 2005.

Nadel, Ira B. Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. Toronto: Random House, 1996.

Oats, Joyce Carol. "The Magnanimity of Wuthering Heights." Originally published in Critical Inquiry, 1983. Retrieved August 16, 2005.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein (1818 text). London: Penguin, 1992.
Romantics glorified individual will and unshackled human aspiration. They are commonly associated with Prometheus, the rebel of Greek myth who presumed to steal fire from the gods. When only 18, Mary Shelley wrote what remains as one of the most compelling works in the English language: Frankenstein, the tale of an idealistic scientist, driven like any good Romantic, to better the lot of humankind. Most of us know what happened next: Dr. Frankenstein assembled a Creature from various corpses, animated the "wretch," but proved too weak to handle the consequences of his actions. In her profound sympathy for the oppressed outcast Creature, Mary Shelley expressed Romantic feeling; but in her vision of human pride and power overstepping its proper limits, she proved both a critic of her husband’s movement and a prophet.

The relationship between women and Romanticism lies outside the scope of the above essay. But it is interesting that two of the most remarkable observations of Romanticism — Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein — are by women writing at a time when publishing as a woman required formidable assertion of individual will in the cause of liberty. Romanticism’s stress on feeling might be seen as the attempt of an increasingly male-dominated society to restore values traditionally associated with the female; in this attempt, however, Romanticism loses sight of moderation, also traditionally associated with the female (and notably embodied in the novels of Jane Austen).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. "Romanticism." Retrieved August 12, 2005.

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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