This is the 4th song from Leonard Cohen in this music library project – that’s surprising considering we have only just past the halfway point of ‘A’s in the alphabetical order listing. Anthem from his 1992 album The Future is one of his most cherished and well-regarded songs. I’m even tempted to just simply call it a ‘poem’, because these words would leap right off the page and leave their indelible mark whether he sung them or not. Also Cohen offers a highly articulate and illuminating interpretation of its meaning at the end of this post.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
You can add up the parts
But you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart
To love will come
But like a refugee
Leonard Cohen’s literary work is as essential as his music. By the time he released his 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, he had already published four poetry collections and two novels.
As a student at McGill University, Cohen’s ability for poetry was noticed and nourished by his professors, Canadian poets Irving Layton and Louis Dudek, who helped steer the young poet from youthful depictions of trysts towards more mature imagery. “I told him that his sex life was no longer a secret,” the latter recalled in a 1970 interview with the Winnepeg Free Press. Cohen, he recalled, went away “giggling,” but the next day returned with the head-turning poem, “Sparrows.” His precocious talent was unmistakable:
But what shall I tell you of migrations
when in this empty sky
the precise ghosts of departed summer birds
still trace old signs
The poem was later awarded a literary prize by McGill, who also funded Cohen’s first collection, 1957’s Let Us Compare Mythologies.
Wikipedia article regarding Leonard Cohen’s 1992 album The Future in which Anthem was released:
The album charted as high as No. 36 in the U.K. and was phenomenally successful in Canada, going gold, platinum, and double-platinum. Cohen also won the Canadian Juno Award for Best Male Vocalist in 1993 for The Future. In his acceptance speech, he quipped, “Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year.”……..In the original Rolling Stone review, Christian Wright called the album “epic”, enthusing “The Future might as easily have been a book: A more troubling, more vexing image of human failure has not been written.”
Leonard Cohen once explained the meaning of Anthem as follows:
That is the background of the whole record, I mean if you have to come up with a philosophical ground, that is “Ring the bells that still can ring.” It’s no excuse… the dismal situation.. and the future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love. “Ring the bells that still can ring”: they’re few and far between but you can find them. “Forget your perfect offering”, that is the hang-up, that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution or perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.
– from Diamonds in the Line