top of page
  • Ronda Wicks Eller

The Song "Suzanne" May Be Deeper Than You Think


A few days ago I had a telephone conversation with a friend and we touched on Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne”. This is the song he was duped into signing away his recording and publication rights to (getting them back in the 80s) but, in the 70s he said, “it would be wrong for me to write this song and get rich from it too”.

I‘ve had personal insights into many of the underlying images and symbols it contains but I also realize that many people don’t absorb more than a surface level understanding of it, so I felt an urge to break it down for anyone interested. Even I never saw its full depth until I did this breakdown and I’m sure anyone who reads below will never hear that song the same way again (I know I won’t, and I already listened to it differently than most).

Before the actual breakdown it’s worth pointing out that Leonard said it was more like a "reportage" during interviews and whenever discussing the background for its creation. Suzanne was a younger friend, wife of a Montreal artist (you can find an interview with her here: https://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/verdal.html and the actual interview has been uploaded on Youtube to watch too). Leonard already had the initial concept of a poem that portrayed the Catholic Church in the harbour, a church dedicated to sailors but wanted to give it metaphysical overtones. Suzanne’s character helped him set the desired tone. The “reportage” is the setting because Suzanne lived near the St. Lawrence River and she did serve him tea and oranges from China, and she liked to purchase Salvation Army clothes and convert them into something that suited her personality and fashion sense. Being true to himself, Leonard added romantic love imagery in with religious imagery to build an alluring song that has touched the hearts of many listeners, for various personal reasons.

Leonard wasn’t dishonest when he said the song was a “reportage” but he did refrain from any attempt to explain the other elements he incorporated. and I don’t think it was a matter of being purposefully deceptive; I think it simply couldn't be explained in an interview.

So now, here’s my breakdown (mine are the italicized comments in brackets). I apologize that I don't know how to lay it out for an easier read:

"Suzanne"

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river

You can hear the boats go by

You can spend the night beside her (these first three lines will be analyzed at the end, since it reverts back to them)

And you know that she’s half crazy

But that’s why you want to be there (‘she’s half crazy’ references Leonard’s song "Had To Go Crazy To Love You"; 'half' infers a split personality or a split soul; split soul is reinforced in the 5th last line, which says, she "holds the mirror" - therefore, is a mirrored twin; “you want to be there” because you are looking for your half too and maybe she’s that half)

And she feeds you tea and oranges

That come all the way from China (Leonard’s reportage)

And just when you mean to tell her

That you have no love to give her (unless looking for a tryst, this is not a contemplation about a happily married woman, as Suzanne was, but the line gives a reason not to be there - “you” aren't sure she's your mirrored twin)

Then she gets you on her wavelength (vibration... extrasensory perception regardless of word choice; “wave” adds to the river imagery but also joins the next line with a second meaning too - water/fluidity/feminine counterpart/life giver)

And she lets the river answer (not in a physical sense, obviously, so the reader or listener must turn to the metaphysical “stream of consciousness”)

That you've always been her lover (“always” = eternal, “lover” doesn’t necessarily mean a twin flame but twin is the best fit for the theme as you will see)

And you want to travel with her (join her soul trip; up to this point 'Suzanne' isn't traveling except that she "takes you to the river", the traveling isn’t a physical thing but neither was going to the river - it is venturing into the stream of consciousness)

And you want to travel blind (to let go of ego and relinquish control over your own life/soul course)

And you know that she will trust you (she isn't blind but she’ll still let you lead... why? reference the song 'Nevermind', which includes a tenet that says "Our law of peace which understands a husband leads, a wife commands").

For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind. (no physical body is perfect, ergo, this is a metaphysical connection left slightly ambiguous because of the carefree way people use 'perfect' these days - but Leonard was painstakingly meticulous in his word choices. "With your mind" alludes to meditation and mental projection, “touched her perfect body” connotes an astral encounter, whether real or imagined)

And Jesus was a sailor (He didn’t just hang out with fishermen, Jesus rode the stream of consciousness, if taken in context of 'the river' established in the previous strophe)

When he walked upon the water (when he rose above consciousness)

And he spent a long time watching

From his lonely wooden tower ("wooden tower" = "consumable earthly body", consumable wood also links this imagery to his "Joan of Arc" song/analogy and "The Tower of Song" = the earthly body he used to deliver his message to the world; 'tower' is also a phallic symbol)

And when he knew for certain

Only drowning men could see him (only men unable to swim in the stream of consciousness)

He said "All men will be sailors then (all men must have a platform to ride above the stream of consciousness instead of swimming in it)

Until the sea shall free them" (until conscious awareness/decisions are no longer useful or a threat)

But he himself was broken

Long before the sky would open (but Jesus was “broken” - a Jewish Kabbalist concept that no person can be whole and ascend unless they are rent in two first; here he opens up the debate that Jesus could not have been whole without his bride ‘the Christian church’)

Forsaken, almost human (scriptural reference but also adds a thought to the preceding line and that is that, not quite being human, his split soul didn’t have to be one single mirrored twin, reinforcing the church concept - he’s saying that the same Kabbalistic rule applied but in a different way)

He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone (the stream of consciousness drowned him, or drank him in, like a stone; In the Kabbalah, Wisdom “Chokmah” is the top point on the Pillar of Mercy and to sink beneath it is to fall to one of the second or third points, that is Mercy “Chesed” and Victory “Netzak”. Essentially, he is accurately telling a message of Christian salvation but with a mystic’s Kabbalah terminology. Wisdom is also a symbol of the moon “Yesod” - the foundation on the main pillar, and the moon is a symbol of love and femininity, affirming the connection between the second strophe and the first)

And you want to travel with him

And you want to travel blind

And you think maybe you'll trust him (you think maybe you’d like to be his bride)

For he's touched your perfect body with his mind. (reference the same message as the last line in the first strophe, but now the characters are you and Jesus, affirming both references as being esoteric and linking them as a trinity - “you” with your twin flame having been reconnected and becoming the bride of Christ)

Now Suzanne takes your hand

And she leads you to the river (“now” - tells you there’s a difference from before, "she" leads you to the stream of consciousness, she is now the husband because "a husband leads")

She is wearing rags and feathers ("wearing rags" infers that "she" is human, "wearing feathers" infers astral flight capability, also an allusion to Yeat's "Foul Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart": a 'rag and bone man' is a man who goes around the streets buying and collecting clothes and other things people don't want; Suzanne is not collecting bones though - this is not about death and corpses)

From Salvation Army counters (links back to Jesus in second strophe to keep the images tied together - can't have the trinity falling apart )

And the sun pours down like honey (the sun is masculine - it is “Tiphareth” and precedes Knowledge/Death “Daath” on the main pillar in Kabbalah, honey is collected during pollination, the seeding process; a sweet byproduct of life… so he is saying that knowledge is generous and a byproduct of living)

On our lady of the harbour (the Catholic church’s name means ‘Our lady of the harbour’ but also, here is the feminine aspect receiving the seed, the knowledge through pollination, ahem, spiritual intercourse and in the physical realm through the act of sex)

And she shows you where to look

Among the garbage and the flowers (she leads you to search ALL potentialities, ugly, used and discarded or beautiful and appreciated, as sources for knowledge and life - the honey)

There are heroes in the seaweed (ie “there’s heroism in the most unexpected and lowly places” - Leonard’s explanation during an interview; alternately, in line with this analysis, there are heroes living out their purpose in the stream of consciousness)

There are children in the morning (the offspring, the children, are in the 'morning', when the sun, the masculine, rises - a direct allusion to them as semen, the result of intercourse, BUT also inferring the same principle on an esoteric level since this strophe builds on the previous two)

They are leaning out for love

And they will lean that way forever

While Suzanne holds the mirror (they "children" - physical and spiritual product of intercourse - will always long for love - Leonard's most prevalent writing theme - while the feminine/she/Suzanne holds the mirror, ie: fails to connect with her masculine twin and ascend as the bride of Christ)

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. (the final section recaptures its theme from the first strophe but the roles are inverted; it's equal, it's collaborative IN EVERYTHING)

By reverting back to the introductory tercet (first three lines) you now recognize their significance too. "You can spend the night beside her" = you can continue 'beside' her and never merge, in the night = without the sun (emasculated) and therefore having no intercourse but there is nothing productive in it and there is no driving force toward ascension as A SINGLE, RECONNECTED SOUL by doing that.

Leonard’s masterful wording and imagery speaks to the soul about its desire to reach full potential and ascend. We recognize the symbols subconsciously and I think that’s one reason why this song speaks to SO many people; not to mention the wonderful music that it is set to!

Be Blessed,

Ronda

513 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page