Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises – in search of Leonard Cohen

Joni & Leonard:

I have just discovered that Joni Mitchell wrote two songs for Leonard Cohen: ‘Rainy Night House’ (1970), and ‘A Case of You’ (1971). This is not news, but is thrilling nonetheless. I’ve carried both these ballads with me for a good twenty years, and suddenly the lyrics come back in sharper focus. Better known, I think, is that Cohen wrote ‘Chelsea Hotel’ (1974) for Janis Joplin, and more obviously, ‘So long, Marianne’ (1967) for Marianne Ihlen, when the couple lived together on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s.

The temptation is to enter the cool shuttered room behind the sun-lit threshold; to raise the latch of biographical intent. Last summer I met my sister in Athens. She was leaving early the next morning, I was heading on to Hydra (Idhra). Although slightly sceptical about literary tourism, there is something about the act of pilgrimage that I sometimes find hard to resist. I would hike into the hills, take a donkey ride (there are no vehicles on the island), and read a book about what really happened to Van Gogh’s ear. And visit Leonard Cohen’s house. That was the plan. But it wouldn’t be a pilgrimage exactly…

Marianne & Leonard:

Shortly after I returned, Nick Broomfield’s documentary Marianne and Leonard was released. I stepped off the sunny pavement into the Picturehouse theatre. Would the latch be lifted behind the dark shutters? The film is well-worth watching for its interviews and archive footage of Cohen and Ihlen, and for the music, of course. It is beautifully shot, although (I thought) somewhat self-indulgent on Broomfield’s part. The opening voice-over comes close to self-parody. It seems to reinforce the myth of the poet-muse dynamic that Polly Samson is said to unspool in her more recent novel set on the island, A Theatre for Dreamers (2020), in which the couple appear as minor characters. Clarisse Loughrey has it perfectly when she writes of Marianne and Leonard, “It’s as if the film wants you to think of Ihlen as Penelope, waiting faithfully for Odysseus to sail home.”

Broomfield seems to dwell on the excesses of the 1960s and 70s, although he ends the film with Cohen’s letter to Ihlen on her deathbed, which shows his (Leonard Cohen’s) real care for Marianne: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” The final frames of the film, the sea lapping a sailing boat, are overlain with Cohen’s voice, reading from his poem, Days of Kindness:

“I pray that loving memory
exists for them too
the precious ones I overthrew
for an education in the world.”

Leonard Cohen, Days of Kindness (1983)

If this demonstrates his regret, there was worse to come. By far the most tragic event for me was Ihlen’s son, ‘Little’ Axel’s fate – abandoned by his father (the novelist Axel Jensen), given hallucinogenics at 16, and confined to a psychiatric institution – the real tragedy of the film.


Back on Hydra, I take a day-trip on a boat to a small cove called Bisti. Onboard, I befriend a Greek woman, Josie. Or, she befriends me. (She shows great hospitality by buying me a delicious dinner of grilled squid despite being between jobs, and next day helps me find Leonard Cohen’s house). We climb above the port-town, paved alleys full of half-stray cats stretching themselves out in the heat behind the large ochre-coloured house (a museum). Behind that, the Greek painter, Tetsis’ old studio. Finally, behind the studio, an empty white-washed alley, the scarlet-bright bougainvillea. Leonard Cohen Street, the blue plaque says at the end of the alleyway. The house shuttered-up and giving away no secrets in the strong light where morning gives way to afternoon.

The sun-lit threshold: Leonard Cohen’s Hydriot home

Leonard & Joni:

There are stylistic differences between Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell that are worth noting. Joni Mitchell has long been known for her confessional style; observed, open. Jenny Stevens describes her song, ‘A Case of You’ as “a dialogue with her former lover.” It opens:

“Just before our love got lost you said,
‘I am as constant as the  northern star.’
And I said, ‘Constantly in the darkness. Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar.’”

Joni Mitchell, ‘A Case of You’ (Blue)

(And biographically speaking, there was no doubt wisdom in her turning away). Cohen could also write directly from experience himself: ‘The Famous Blue Raincoat’, ‘Suzanne’, ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, but he more often wrote in an abstract, symbolic style. In poetic terms, he was more the descendant of Yeats or Lorca (after whom he named his daughter), than, say, Robert Lowell. His song, ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ shows a typical kind of veiled autobiography:

“I know it must have hurt you,
it must have hurt your pride
to stand beneath my window
with your bugle and your drum,
while I was up there waiting
for the miracle to come.”

Leonard Cohen, ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ (The Future)

(Not to say, his knowing Jewish humour, a certain resigned melancholy). It’s a kind of confession, although what is being confessed remains opaque. It could serve as a description of his relationship with a number of women – perhaps especially, Marianne Ihlen foremost among them.  Crucially, in his late work, he distils the kind of excesses Broomfield exposes, into something beautifully honed, transfigured, and at times near-Psalmic (‘If It Be Your Will’).  

I did not reach the island’s heights, or ride the donkeys (they looked worn out and forlorn – I felt for them); or see behind the shutters. Nor did I wish to, really – though I’m glad I made the trip to the island. As I looked around one corner, he seemed to disappear around the next. It’s as well in these moments to turn back towards his golden voice. As he said himself:

“You’ll be hearing from me, long after I’m gone.
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from my window in the Tower of Song.”

‘Tower of Song’ (I’m Your Man)

References & links in this post:

Jenny Stevens, Joni Mitchell: Where to start in her back catalogue, The Guardian, 20 May 2020
Clarisse Loughrey, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love review: Too wrapped up in the old obsessions with male genius, The Independent, 25 July 2019
Nick Broomfield, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (Key Media distribution; Lafayette Film production, 26 July 2019). 
Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Leonard Cohen, Poems & Songs (Everyman, 2011) Copyright © 2009-2020 Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc. All Rights Reserved. © Siquomb Publishing Company

The point about poetic style is based on Andrew Motion’s observations about Philip Larkin’s poetry

One thought on “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises – in search of Leonard Cohen

  1. Pingback: A Gift and a Theft: Thinking Rabbinically in Troubled Times | Benedict Gilbert poems

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