Spiritual Connection- Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”

Leonard Cohen, Canadian poet and songwriter, wrote his 1960s ode “Suzanne” (listen while you read if you want :)) about his friendship with a woman of the same name, Suzanne Verdal. The slow, hypnotic mood of the song draws listeners in, the world Cohen creates is enhanced by his artful lyrics. While many different interpretations of the song can be derived from the poetic lyrics, I believe that “Suzanne” examines Cohen’s spiritual connection to Suzanne that teaches him to have love for everybody around him. Throughout the song, Cohen uses rich description, point of view, and allusion to construct a picture of this relationship, and make the listener feel as if they are experiencing it as well.

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

Here, our narrator is describing not only the setting he and Suzanne are in together, but small details about Suzanne herself. Cohen appeals to numerous senses in this section, placing us “near the river” where we can “hear the boats go by”, we can taste the “tea and oranges”, putting listeners in the same place as the narrator. Further, the fact that Suzanne “feeds you” these specific items “that come all the way from China”, as well as the implication that she’s “half crazy” are all little idiosyncracies that imprint a unique picture in audiences’ minds. We, as listeners, are immersed in the narrator’s experience through these details. Taking the experitential aspect a bit farther, Cohen uses 2nd person perspective in this song. Most songs may adopt 2nd person perspective when their story is directed towards a lover or an ex, but the subject in this case is the listener. Cohen is telling us that we think and feel the things that the lyrics are depicting. (Another layer of this song is how he says “you”, yet we also assume that the experience he is describing is his own, merging narrator and listener into one. This oneness contributes to the sense of community among humanity that Cohen comes to describe/imply later in the song, but I won’t go too in depth about this idea).

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

Cohen leaves the narrative of Suzanne to explore a biblical comparison. He refers to Jesus as “a sailor when he walked upon the water”, then depicts him on “his lonely wooden tower” (the cross on which he was crucified). As Jesus watched from the cross, He announced, to “drowning men”, that “all men will be sailors then”. The contrast between Jesus’s divine act of walking on water and the condition of those who are drowning seems to imply the superiority of Jesus over others; yet, Jesus still dubs ordinary men as “sailors”, a term also used to describe himself. This allusion shows how this divine, revered figure still considers his fellow humans as equal to himself. Additionally, when Cohen refers to Jesus as “broken”, it recalls Suzanne’s flawed personality (“half-crazy”). The reference to Jesus plays in directly to the second to last stanza, where “Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river”:

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

The sun pouring down “like honey on our lady of the harbor” gives audiences a sense of divinity that was brought up before by the allusion to Jesus, implying Cohen’s own spiritual connection and reverence for Suzanne. As Suzanne shows us “where to look” for the faces of others humans, “heroes” and “children”, within the river. The faces are among the most discarded aspects, “garbage” and “seaweed”, but Suzanne still sees the faces and shows us how to see them, too. Suzanne’s moral nature, superior to others’ in Cohen’s mind, yet egalitarian, is compared to Jesus’s by the similarity of their described circumstances. THis reinforces Cohen’s spiritual connection in their relationship. In both cases, Cohen, as well as audiences, are taught to see the humanity in everyone by these divine figures.

2 thoughts on “Spiritual Connection- Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”

  1. Ariana M

    I think you have a really well-thought-out and structured analysis here. I particularly liked your breakdown of biblical and divine allusions.

    Like

  2. John Shaw

    It’s also true that Suzanne’s apartment in Montreal faced the river toward a famous Catholic church on the other side where sailors traditionally went to ask God for a safe voyage. Cohen’s seemingly off-topic second verse seems inspired by this Sailors’ Church which he could see from her apartment. And thus, in the third verse, “our lady of the harbor” is of course at once the Virgin Mary, the old church, and Suzanne.

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