What Do You Make of This Poem?

Leonard Cohen, ‘The Captain’

Now the Captain called me to his bed
He fumbled for my hand
“Take these silver bars,” he said
“I’m giving you command.”
“Command of what, there’s no one here
There’s only you and me –
All the rest are dead or in retreat
Or with the enemy.”

continues here

Thoughts on interpretation?

5 thoughts on “What Do You Make of This Poem?”

  1. Cohen did this both as a poem and a song…I believe the poem was first and the song came later.

    Lots of speculation about the poem’s meaning can be found on the Internet….for example, here…I am quite sure that the assumption that the Captain is a *ship* captain is incorrect (the silver bars are not a nautical symbol for a captain)

  2. The silver bars are only superficially the rank insignia. The protagonist seems to be feeling confusion due to the moral ambiguity associated with the act of killing in war. The captain seems to recognize there is an essential quality in his subordinate’s personal turmoil. Everyone inevitably falls short of our ideals, and the person who discovers that this struggle never ends is actually the person that you want in the battle.

    There’s no greater ideal than certainty, and war is the most uncertain situation there is. The settled and adjusted person has settled into believing in a certainty that isn’t really available to us. The person who is struggling with certainty, on the other hand, is battling a power more real than life and death, of which the balance of life and death on the battlefield pales in comparison.

    Blaise Pascal wrote in his collection of thoughts

    I blame equally those who choose to praise man, those who choose to blame him, and those who choose to amuse themselves; and I can only approve of those who seek with groans. It is good to be tired and wearied by the vain search after the true good, that we may stretch out our arms to the Redeemer.

    Ultimately, the burden is unresolvable, the search for truth in ideals hopelessly incomplete. The only thing left for the protagonist is to hitch his yoke to his forebears’ struggle, in grudging recognition that we stand together fighting in the endless battle of meaning, linked by the unbroken chain of bars.

  3. I think the poem’s theme may be about the acceptance of responsibility:

    Now the Captain he was dying
    But the Captain wasn’t hurt
    The silver bars were in my hand
    I pinned them to my shirt

    …even when the cause is ambiguous:

    And I’ve read the Bill of Human Rights
    And *some* of it was true

    and the battle appears to be lost.

  4. Something about a dialogue between Jewish vs. Christian viewpoints in a thoroughly secular modern world.

  5. Interesting thoughts. There does seem to be a tendency to associate Christianity with idealism or realism, while skepticism or dialectical inquiry are more associated with Judaism. Talmudic hairsplitting vs the Heavenly Jerusalem.

    Biases and stereotypes are sticky for a reason, but I don’t think that one is entirely accurate. There have always been the reverse, Christian skeptics and Jewish idealists. We wouldn’t have the State of Israel if there weren’t. Nor the second amendment, I suppose. Kabbalists, mendicants, etc. There’s all kinds in this world.

    However, the poem is a good example of a dialectic. Like the famous analogy of Apollo vs Dionysus. Freedom vs responsibility has definitely got to be part of that.

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