The disclaimer is that this is my (humble) interpretation. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a definite source explaining what Leonard Cohen was trying to say with this song. Apparently, it’s free for all to interpret. And this is not the best-written thing because I was just trying to grab what’s left of my eureka moment and the train commute already took half the magic.
Also, very important: everyone knows that this is not a religious song. Cohen was using biblical elements as metaphor. So this is not a religious discussion, thank you.
I really love the tone of this song. It like came out of a man drinking himself to oblivion—a very intellectual, very heartbroken man who can wield metaphor in such a state.
This first stanza stumped me like an inside joke. I think this is his veiled introduction explaining the song’s context. “Secret chord” is love. We all know God is all about love. Here, he is speaking to his partner in first person. She is the pragmatist and he, the romantic, in this love affair. “You don’t really care for music, do ya?” “It (love) goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall (in love) and the major lift (the honeymoon period).” Very nice use of pun – the minor fall compared to the major lift. The king falling in (and out of) love, playing the secret chord and not knowing that he’s “composing” this via his romantic (mis)adventures—literally, also, “praising the Lord” in the act of loving another.
I definitely think “proof” refers to his love but I can’t concretely understand the meaning behind this sentence. The next two lines describe the seduction. “She tied you to a kitchen chair – describes her taming of him; “She broke your throne” – renders him powerless; “and she cut your hair” – using Samson and Delilah to illustrate her breaking his strength. “And from your lips she drew the hallelujah” – but despite this, she still took his breath away and hallelujah in the name of her perfection. It’s his defeat in his love for her.
If the “marble arch” is the same place as the “here” described in the first 3 lines then it should be symbolic of how she has conquered and claimed this territory, his territory (he, alone, was there first). This, obviously, is not a relationship of equals. With him being the romantic, she holds the power over him and therefore “your (her) flag on the marble arch”. And “love (for him) is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah” speaks of the sweetness (hallelujah – still praise) of his love in the bitterness (cold and broken) of his defeat.
This part is boring, just, first 3 lines – they used to have emotional intimacy; next 3 lines – they used to have physical intimacy (but it’s an interesting way to put it).
I feel some regret at the cynicism of this line “but all I’ve ever learned from love, was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you” – ending it (or withdrawing) when you sense the other party withdrawing. (So you don’t end up being the fool holding on to nothing.) The result is not an enlightened person (“not somebody who has seen the light”), but one who is still flawed, maybe even more flawed because of resentment, calling out in pain.
I think “name” refers to love. She might be trying to say he never actually loved her anyway, that he “don’t even know the name”. But it doesn’t matter what it was, because whatever it was he felt for her, it was honest in passion (“blaze of light in every word”).
In the last stanza, perhaps with the reflection in the previous one, he tries to account for his flawed, mortal passion – “did my best, but it wasn’t much”, “couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch”. (“Feel” being a higher quality than “touch”, which he doesn’t want to presume he’s capable of.) Ultimately, he approaches with complete honesty and with the bitterness ebbing, seems to achieve a sense of closure, signifying his submission/acceptance in the face of futility and giving love its due admiration in spite of everything – “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah”.
Very fancy breakup song.
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner
Bounce by Matthew Syed
Quirkology by Richard Wiseman