“Sail On” Leonard Cohen Invokes Whitman & Frost In His Conceptualization Of Democracy

Democracy is beyond hope, a manly spirit, a Whitmanesque spirit. ‘Sail on,’ you know. I think that Frost said, ‘Everything I ever learned about life can be summed up in three words: It goes on.’


Leonard Cohen


From Maverick Spirit: Leonard Cohen by Jim O’Brien. B-Side Magazine: Aug/Sept 1993.

DrHGuy Note: While Leonard Cohen’s lyrics from Democracy, “Sail on, sail on / O mighty Ship of State,” echo Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Sail On, 0 Ship Of State (and “sail on” appears in other Longfellow poems), “sail on” is indeed in the “Whitmanesque spirit,” (consider, for example, O Captain! My Captain!) and the phrase “sail on” appears in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

Then falter not O book, fulfil your destiny,
You not a reminiscence of the land alone,
You too as a lone bark cleaving the ether, purpos’d I know not whither, yet ever full of faith,
Consort to every ship that sails, sail you!
Bear forth to them folded my love, (dear mariners, for you I fold it here in every leaf;)
Speed on my book! spread your white sails my little bark athwart the imperious waves,
Chant on, sail on, bear o’er the boundless blue from me to every sea,
This song for mariners and all their ships.

From In Cabin’d Ships At Sea [emphasis mine]


And, “Everything I ever learned about life can be summed up in three words: It goes on.” is authoritatively attributed to Frost.


Update: Rike points out that “sail on” was also used in a passage from Beautiful Losers:

We almost began a perfect conversation, F. said as he turned on the six o’clock news. He turned the radio very loud and began to shout wildly against the voice of the commentator, who was reciting a list of disasters. Sail on, sail on, O Ship of State, auto accidents, births, Berlin, cures for cancer! Listen, my friend, listen to the present, the right now, it’s all around us, painted like a target, red, white, and blue. Sail into the target like a dart, a fluke bull’s eye in a dirty pub. Empty your memory and listen to the fire around you. Don’t forget your memory, let it exist somewhere precious in all the colors that it needs but somewhere else, hoist your memory on the Ship of State like a pirate’s sail, and aim yourself at the tinkly present. Do you know how to do this? Do you know how to see the akropolis like the Indians did who never even had one? Fuck a saint, that’s how, find a little saint and fuck her over and over in some pleasant part of heaven, get right into her plastic altar, dwell in her silver medal, fuck her until she tinkles like a souvenir music box, until the memorial lights go on for free, find a little saintly faker like Teresa or Catherine Tekakwitha or Lesbia, whom prick never knew but who lay around all day in a chocolate poem, find one of these quaint impossible cunts and fuck her for your life, coming all over the sky, fuck her on the moon with a steel hourglass up your hole, get tangled in her airy robes, suck her nothing juices, lap, lap, lap, a dog in the ether, then climb down to this fat earth and slouch around the fat earth in your stone shoes, get clobbered by a runaway target, take the senseless blows again and again, a right to the mind, piledriver on the heart, kick in the scrotum, help! help! it’s my time, my second, my splinter of the shit glory tree, police, fire men! look at the traffic of happiness and crime, it’s burning in crayon like the akropolis rose! And so on.


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 20, 2016.

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