While it may seem that Leonard Cohen’s I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries is a clear rejection of external institutions for an internal individualism, a closer reading sees a more conflicted persona that does acknowledge—and even yearn for— external dogma. Central to the poem is the negative refrain, “I have not”, which the persona uses in the first three stanzas to dismiss various institutions: European culture, mysticism, religion and so on. However, these negative refrains are superficial: they secretly have an affirmative subtext that celebrates their respective external dogma. It is only with the refrain in the final stanza that this becomes clear.
In the final stanza, Cohen subverts the reader’s expectations of the negative refrain by using a double negative: “I have not been unhappy for ten thousand years” (Cohen 23).This is the first positive refrain, and serves to conclude the persona’s belief in an internal and individual philosophy. Yet Cohen subtly disturbs the refrain: indeed, the purpose of a double negative is to effect an understatement—perhaps the persona is not as happy as he might claim? Furthermore, there is a marked sense of contrast between the muted “I have not been unhappy” and the hyperbolic “ten thousand years.” The “ten thousand years” is also clearly different to the rest of the austere stanza. Cohen uses the double negative and the hyperbole in the final refrain to disrupt the reader, prompting the reader to question the validity of the persona’s ideas and tranquility and forcing a closer and more contrarian reading of the previous refrains.
In the first stanza, the persona dismisses European culture. However, Cohen permeates the stanza with a distinct sense of a ballad’s musicality through internal rhyme and consonance, the knights “who fell as beautifully as their ballads tell” (3). Particularly in comparison to the final stanza, the first stanza features very lyrical and Romantic descriptions, “the tall grasses tombs of knights” (Cohen 2).This suggests that on some level, the persona is aware of the beauty and purpose of external institutions such as European monasteries.
This idea is expounded on in the second stanza, which opens with the persona promoting his assurance in internality: “I have not released my mind to wander and wait” (Cohen 6).Despite this lack of wandering, the imagery in this stanza is ranging and nomadic, covering the space “between the snowy mountain and the fishermen” (Cohen 8). The stanza also features the only simile in the poem, where the persona essentially compares his mind to an external object: “like a moon, / or a shell beneath the moving water” (Cohen 6, 9-10).The persona’s aversion to his mind waiting is also important as it introduces the persona’s disdain for passivity, which is particularly relevant in the next stanza.
The context of the refrain in the third stanza, “I have not held my breath”, implies it is related to the breathing of God (Cohen 11). However, Cohen is also using this refrain in an idiomatic sense, advising the reader not to “hold their breath” passively waiting for God. Yet the mere fact that the persona refers to God as “G-d” indicates he does respect religion. Interestingly, the dash also has the effect of eliciting a pause when pronouncing “G-d”, which mirrors the inhalation of a breath. The persona admits his failure, “I have not become the heron” (Cohen 16). The heron continues the natural imagery of the first two stanzas—deep down, the persona does want to connect with an external institution. However, the persona also admits he had not truly sought God, that he has not “tamed my heartbeat with an exercise, / or starved for visions” (Cohen 13-14).The persona is guilty of the very passivity he claims he does not do.
The fourth and penultimate stanza is the persona’s most explicit condemnation of institution. The “combs of iron” references the torture that killed Saint Blaise, a martyr of his faith (Hall). The persona rejects this sacrifice, painting a violent image of the destructive power of external ideology, of “bodies wrapped and burnt in scrolls” (Cohen 22).It is with these authoritative condemnations still fresh that the reader approaches the final stanza and concludes the poem, perhaps making it unsurprising that I Have Not Lingered initially seems like a condemnation of external dogma.
However, to read the final stanza against the first three stanzas reveals a more nuanced interpretation. The first three stanzas, despite their negative refrains, are filled with beautiful natural imagery, where Cohen ultimately duplicates and affirms the characteristics of the dogmas that his persona condemns. The last stanza is sterile in comparison: there is a layer of strangling nihilism and passivity despite its affirmative refrain. The final sentence does not utilize the first person singular, “My favorite cooks prepare my meals, / my body cleans and repairs itself, / and all my work goes well” (Cohen 25-28).The “I” is gone. Indeed, the persona refers to his body as “itself”, reiterating his complete estrangement from even himself. The persona is not happy—indeed, he is not even free. He is trapped within himself. His punishment, ten thousand years long thus far, is an un-ending slavery of meaningless repetition and alienation, “During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep” (Cohen 23).
Cohen, Leonard. “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries.” Open Country: Canadian Poetry in English. Ed. Robert Lecker. Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2008. Print.
Hall, Alexander. “A History of St Blaise.” St Blaise Town Council: History. St Blaise Town Council, n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2013. <http://www.stblaisetowncouncil.co.uk/history.html>.