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Psalm 137: “By The Rivers Dark” by Leonard Cohen


Leonard Cohen, interview with Gilles Medioni for L'Express

“[‘By the Rivers Dark’] is a reference to the Book of Psalms (Psalm 137): the children of Israel are in exile, their captors asked them to sing, but they refuse because they can not celebrate sacred songs in a foreign land. In the psalm it is said: ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let me arm fall, my tongue cleave to my palate.’ I got this idea of applying Jerusalem to Babylon. this song is about reconciliation between the profane and the sacred.”

As you listen (above) to Leonard Cohen’s rendition of the psalm, consider the following questions:

  1. In light of the quotation from Cohen (above), how does he describe his relationship to the Babylonian landscape in this song?
  2. Elsewhere, Cohen writes of the importance of “living completely where you are” and not reserving “some mythical or spiritual refuge as an alternative.” How do you respond to this advice?
  3. How does Cohen play with the image of playing lyres from the original psalm
  4. Why do you think this modern psalmist entitled this song “By The Rivers Dark”?

By the rivers dark
I wandered on.
I lived my life
In Babylon.

And I did forget
My holy song
And I had no strength
In Babylon.

By the rivers dark
Where I could not see
Who was waiting there
Who was hunting me.

And he cut my lip
And he cut my heart.
So I could not drink
From the river dark.

And he covered me,
And I saw within,
My lawless heart
And my wedding ring,

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark
I panicked on.
I belonged at last
To Babylon.

Then he struck my heart
With a deadly force,
And he said, This heart
It is not yours.’

And he gave the wind
My wedding ring
And he circled us
With everything.

By the rivers dark,
In a wounded dawn,
I live my life
In Babylon.

Though I take my song
From a withered limb,
Both song and tree,
They sing for him.

Be the truth unsaid
And the blessing gone,
If I forget
My Babylon.

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark,
Where it all goes on
By the rivers dark
In Babylon.