Joan Of Arc By Leonard Cohen
Joan of Arc was released March 19, 1971 on Leonard Cohen’s third album, Songs of Love and Hate.1 It was also released, coupled with Diamonds in the Mine, as a 45.
Cohen’s song is constructed as a dialogue between Joan of Arc, who is being burned at the stake, and the fire ravishing her. A synopsis of Joan of Arc’s life, excerpted from Joan of Arc at History.com (more detail and many illustrations about Joan of Arc are available on this site) follows:
Joan of Arc, a peasant girl living in medieval France, believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory in its long-running war with England. With no military training, Joan convinced the embattled crown prince Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orléans, where it achieved a momentous victory over the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. After seeing the prince crowned King Charles VII, Joan was captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, tried for witchcraft and heresy and burned at the stake in 1431, at the age of 19.
Cohen attests that Joan of Arc, like many of his songs, underwent multiple revisions.
The song had too many verses and it took about five years to sort out the right ones.2
Cohen elaborated on the theme of the song in a 1988 interview:
Interviewer: Joan of Arc was a soldier, a mould breaker. She was too, a girl adrift in a political world she didn’t fully understand or embrace. Cohen’s song about her concentrates on the human being, the uncertain one behind the armour. He views her as a woman pursued by fire until eventually, inevitably, that fire is her consuming passion. Cohen’s Joan is alone in her tent, the army dependent on her clarity of mind; a nation tied to her strategy. And what we find in that tent is a woman without interest in the war. Her armour no longer bright, without a man to get her through the night. She craves a wedding dress, something white, something at odds with the fighting about her. So, is Leonard Cohen saying a woman ultimately needs a man to be fulfilled?
Leonard Cohen: I was thinking more of this sense of a destiny that human beings have and how they meet and marry their destiny, how ultimately there is, you know, a male or a minus-plus, however you want to put it, you know a positive-negative yin-yang, male-female; that there is this connection that we have with our – with the unfolding of our lives. I don’t want to suggest in that song that what she really wanted to be was a housewife. What I mean to say is that as lonely and as solitudinous as she was she had to meet and be embraced by her destiny. That’s all I mean by that imagery, because – I’ve just been reading a lot about Joan of Arc again – she continues to fascinate me that woman, and seen from the point of view of the woman’s movement she really does stand for something stunningly original and courageous. There’s a great chapter about her in Andrea Dworkin’s book, Intercourse. It’s a grand chapter on Joan of Arc and really a passionate evocation of what her real achievement was at the time to by-pass everything and to go right into the centre of activity. So I don’t mean to suggest that she really wanted a wedding ring and some kids and day-care.3
In another interview, the Canadian singer-songwriter explained
[Joan of Arc] was a strange song indeed; it was out of myself and contained the notion of reverence. When I recorded that song I will admit to having a strong religious feeling. I don’t think it’ll happen again.4
Cohen addressed the gender politics of Joan of Arc:
[Joan of Arc] might be [a sexist song] but I think it is on the side of women. But more accurately…it is just a song about the total gift of total giving and the total consummation of the spirit in that kind of experience. It takes in the whole shot to be man and woman.5
And finally there is this enigmatic exchange:
Q: Do you have a thing for Joan of Arc?
Leonard Cohen: I used to – but I don’t see her that much anymore6
Nico & Joan Of Arc
Nico, the German singer with the Velvet Underground and a fixture in Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd who repeatedly spurned Cohen’s advances,7 preferring younger men, was an inspiration for Joan of Arc.8 Leonard Cohen introduced the song in a 1974 Paris concert with Arc with these words:
This song was written for a German girl [Nico] I used to know. She’s a great singer, I love her songs. I recently read an interview where she was asked about me and my work. And she said “I was completely unnecessary.” Anyhow…. I hope she’s not here. This song came through her.9
In addition, Cohen reported this conversation about Joan of Arc with Nico:
Interviewer: Do you still fall in love easily?
Leonard Cohen: Oh, I fall in love all the time. I remember walking with Nico and I said, ‘Do you think Joan of Arc fell in love?’ and she said, ‘All the time Leonard. All the time’. I feel my heart going out 100 times a day.10
Because of Nico’s involvement in the song, the line, “Such a cold and lonesome heroine” is widely held to be a double entendre exploiting the homophones “heroine” and “heroin.”
Leonard Cohen’s Studio Version Of Joan Of Arc
Credit Due Department: Photo of Nico: Nico at Lampeter University – November 1985 (1)“ von GanMed64 – Flickr: Nico (The Velvet Underground) – Lampeter University – November 1985. Lizenziert unter CC BY 2.0 über Wikimedia Commons.
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Mar 26, 2015.
- The display of cover art brings to mind the back cover of Cohen’s first album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, shown below, which is sometimes conjectured to represent Joan of Arc. It was not so intended. Cohen described it instead as “a Mexican religious picture called ‘Anima Sola,’ the lonely spirit or the lonely soul. It is the triumph of the spirit over matter, the spirit being that beautiful woman breaking out of the chains and the fire and prison.” Source: Ladies and Gents, Leonard Cohen by Jack Hafferkamp. Rolling Stone: February 4, 1971
- Leonard Cohen: In Every Style of Passion by Jim Devlin. Omnibus Press: 1996 [↩]
- How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns – Interview With Leonard Cohen Presented By John McKenna. RTE Ireland, May 9 & 12, 1988 [↩]
- Cohen Regrets by Alastair Pirrie. Beat Patrol: December 30, 2008. Originally written for the New Musical Express: March 10, 1973. [↩]
- Transcript of Pacifica Interview with Kathleen Kendall. WBAI Radio, New York City: December 4, 1974. [↩]
- Life On The Ledge With Leonard Cohen by Jon Marlowe. The Miami News: Nov 9, 1977 [↩]
- Cohen called her “The most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.” Source: Who held a gun to Leonard Cohen’s head? by Tim de Lisle. The Guardian: Sept 16, 2004 [↩]
- Nico was also an inspiration for Memories, Take This Longing, and One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong. [↩]
- Leonard Cohen Prologues [↩]
- As a New Generation Discovers Leonard Cohen’s Dark Humour Kris Kirk Ruffles the Great Man’s Back Pages” by Kris Kirk. Poetry Commotion, June 18, 1988. [↩]