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Earthly and Divine Fulfillment in Leonard Cohen’s “Angels”

By Lucy Zavitz

In his short poem “Angels,” Leonard Cohen’s speaker explores the relationship between the body and soul as he describes the experience of a man locked inside a cage. Cohen’s speaker  separates the man’s body from his soul to deconstruct his earthly presence and explain his desire for the divine. His bodily experience is represented in flesh, while gems become a symbol of his soul. Cohen uses a modified ballad narrative structure which dramatizes the caged man’s experience from an impersonal point of view. The poem’s speaker looks down on the scene as a viewer, entirely removed from the desecration of the protagonist’s body and mind and yet he is invested if not intimately connected to the man’s fate. This apparent anomaly resolves itself once the protagonist is established as a poet himself, perhaps the one who authored this poem. The implied conflation of the poetic speaker and protagonist offers a meta-commentary on the implications of poetic reflections. Through an intricate poetic structure, heavy-handed symbolism, and the fusion of protagonist and speaker, Cohen conveys the degradation of the protagonist’s mind and body and suggests that displeasure in the living world, brought about by poetic ponderings, elicits the destruction of the divine. 

In the first stanza, Cohen’s speaker establishes the cage as the container of the protagonist’s corporeal form with the gems and flesh as symbols for his soul and body. Cohen introduces the protagonist through a depiction of his imprisonment. The speaker limits the images of his activities within “The cage where he ate and slept” to mere necessities (1). The simplified description of the man’s actions, which only pertain to the preservation of his physical body, configures the cage as a metaphor for the corporeal confines of earthly life. He describes the man through references to his environment, thus merging his being with the surrounding cage. The use of the word “furnished” in reference to the interiors of the “cage” paradoxically characterizes the protagonist’s environment as both a home and a place of confinement (2, 1). As the cage symbolizes his earthly presence, the image of the “gems and flesh” that “furnish” the cage become his soul and body (2). The synecdochal flesh deteriorates the wholeness of the man’s form, and the metonymy transposes his soul into gems. The concept of a soul, traditionally related to the divine, is reversed as the speaker connects it back to the earth as a gemstone. When tied to the earthly gems the soul exists independent of the man’s body. 

Cohen’s meticulously crafted poetic structure contextualizes the images he creates and establishes the detrimental implications of the driving symbols; soulful gems and bodily flesh. The stanza flows as one sentence with hypotactic clauses enjambed between lines. The enjambment enables the image of the man’s cage to unfold slowly, with each line gradually clarifying the nature of the protagonist’s environment and its effect on him. Further, the separation of the hypotactic clauses between lines amplifies the contingency of the subordinate clause, “So he would not bruise when he fell” on to the comforting furnishings of the previous line (3). His soul and body preserve him as he falls from grace. The first stanza resembles the structure of a traditional ballad, but he switches the meter of the first and fourth lines. The first two lines of the stanza are written in iambic trimeter with anapestic substitution on the second foot, and the third and fourth lines transform into trochaic tetrameter with iambic substitution on the ending foot. Cohen uses anapestic substitution to maintain a constant line length as he switches meters. This deliberate congruity of line length calls attention to the visual structure of the poem as the consistent lines begin to resemble the bars of the man’s cage. The iambic substitutions of the tetrametric lines emphasize the slant end rhyme of “fell” and “dull” and connect the protagonist’s fall from grace to his visions (3,4). The speaker’s diction suggests that the man is deceived by “his visions,” which seem so high and beautiful compared to his caged life (4). By interrogating these dull visions, the speaker implies that the man’s dissatisfaction with earthly life destabilizes divine salvation. The meditated transitions from rising to falling rhythm create a foreboding atmosphere as if the caged man’s strength is fading, and the shift from iambic trimeter to trochaic tetrameter offsets the haunting images of his fall with a plunging song-like rhythm as the man and the meter descend towards death. 

As the poem progresses, the speaker portrays the protagonist’s inability to move past his desire to escape his cage and live amongst the angels. The second stanza consists of parallel paratactic sentences with identical first and third lines and the explanation of the protagonist’s actions as he sings in the second and fourth lines of the stanza. Cohen follows a traditional ballad stanza with the second and fourth lines in iambic trimeter, and the man’s song in iambic tetrameter with trochaic substitutions on the words “garnets” and “angels” to emphasize their comparison (5). The melodious tetrameter of the song coupled with the iambic substitution and the startling, perfect repetition eerily offsets the rhythm of the stanza and reveals the man’s solemn disposition. As the man looks above his cage and sees the angels flying, he tries to convince himself that the earthly experience to which he is confined is fulfilling as he repetitively sings, “Garnets are brighter than angels” (7). Cohen uses the image of garnets to conjure an impassioned red to solidify the connection between the man’s heart and the raw and natural beauties of the earthly world. The comparison between the earthly gemstones and divine angels depicts them as proportionate in value, and thus implicates them both as a means to achieve spiritual visions of fulfillment. The protagonist’s repetition of this phrase reveals the hesitancy underlying his declaration; he must persuade himself that his caged life provides greater contentment than the lives of the angels. 

The man’s failure to reconcile his earthly presence with his desire for the divine results in his decay. While the protagonist sings of his satisfaction, the narrator’s interjections reveal the man’s misery. In isolation, the caged man entertains himself with the only belongings he has in the cage: his soul and his flesh. He “ma[kes]” poems to satisfy his soul and he pleasures himself to gratify his flesh (6). The image of this carnal pleasure is also affixed with pain, as the word “crushed” connotes bodily damage (8). This diction suggests that part of his pleasure arises from his own self-destruction. The poet, despite his claims in song, is dissatisfied on Earth and takes pleasure in punishing his physical form. Similarly, the man’s poems seem to incite more distress than comfort. When juxtaposed through the parallel structure to the crushing of his physical body, the poetry he makes also becomes a form of self-mutilation. The production of poetry embellishes his desire to leave his cage, and therefore adds to his misery. In nullifying his earthly fulfillment, the man’s poems become a tool of his own destruction. 

  As the poet gives in to his lust for the divine, Cohen’s poetic structure conveys the darkness of his descent. In the third stanza, Cohen reverts back to a modified ballad structure with iambic tetrameter in the first line and to iambic trimeter in the second line. The final two lines are written in trochaic tetrameter with an extra stressed syllable in the final line of the poem. Cohen uses the falling shift from iambic to trochaic rhythm to create a solemn, uncanny tone in the final lines. Cohen’s narrator begins the final stanza with “but” to negate the previous characterization of the caged man’s satisfaction with his earthly life (9). Though the poetic protagonist claims that his earthly soul is brighter than divine angels, the poem’s speaker reveals that he still longs for the angel. The speaker, having neglected to directly reveal any of the man’s emotions in the previous stanzas, now declares that the man “loved the golden feathers” (9) The connotations of this love, however, are not concrete or joyful, but rather attached to the impermanent fluttering of fallen angel feathers. As the poet destroys himself to attain the divine, the world of angels collapses above him too. The angels, once the caged man’s beacon of hope, are plucked of their feathers which fall upon the protagonist’s face in “golden shadows” (11). The oxymoronic image evokes both the desirability of the angel’s sunlit heaven and the dark shadow that it casts on the world. Like the man’s weak and dying body, the angels are ripped apart by the poet’s despondency. The speaker implies that the man is smothered to death as the feathers “cover his face,” but the poet does not express any distress and rather admires the shadows of death that smoother him (12). Cohen writes in past tense throughout the entirety of the poem because his protagonist is already dead. His resentment for the earthly beauty blinds him to the destruction above.

Cohen’s separation of the protagonist’s body and soul allows him to explore the relationship between the living world and the divine. Cohen’s poetic structure implicitly conveys the man’s sorrow as he longs for existence beyond his earthly body. The poet’s misery in his earthly caged existence causes both his own destruction and the disintegration of the divine world he yearns for. His poetic contemplations of disinterest in the living world lead to his downfall.

Works Cited

Cohen, Leonard. The Spice-Box of Earth. “Angels” (p. 41). Canada, McClelland & Stewart, 2018.

By Leonard Cohen, 1961 

The cage where he ate and slept 
Was furnished with gems and flesh 
So he would not bruise when he fell 
Or his vision ever grow dull. 

Garnets are brighter than angels, 
He sang as he made his poems. 
Garnets are brighter than angels, 
He sang as he crushed his loins. 

But how he loved the golden feathers 
Which fluttered through the cage; 
How he loved the golden shadows 
When they covered up his face.

About the Author: Lucy Zavitz is a U2 Honours English Literature major with a minor in Russian Culture. She is from Salt Lake City, Utah, and loves knitting, skiing, and hiking in her free time. Lucy is interested in Modernist poetry and 18th and 19th-century novels of sensibility.