Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’: That’s how the light gets in

To kick off its relaunch on WordPress, I thought an entry on this blog’s signature song would be appropriate.

Leonard Cohen once explained the meaning of the song as follows:

That is the background of the whole record, I mean if you have to come up with a philosophical ground, that is “Ring the bells that still can ring.” It’s no excuse… the dismal situation.. and the future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love. “Ring the bells that still can ring”: they’re few and far between but you can find them. “Forget your perfect offering”, that is the hang-up, that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution or perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.
–  from Diamonds in the Line 

Howard Jacobson discussed this lyric recently in the Independent:

Those great lines from the song “Anthem”. Ring the bells etc. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack – a crack in everything.

It’s like a reprimand to people of my temperament – life’s complainants, eroticists of disappointment, lovers only of what’s flawless and overwrought. Could he be singing this to me? You expect too much, mister. You are too unforgiving. Not everything works out, not everything is great, and not everyone must like what you like. I’ve been taught this lesson before. I remember reading an essay by the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in which he argues for the necessity of vulgarity in serious literature. Thomas Hardy said a writer needed to be imperfectly grammatical some of the time. Mailer told an audience that not everybody wanted to ride in a Lamborghini. And now here’s Leonard Cohen saying the same thing. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack…

And then comes another, still more wonderful, clinching line – “That’s how the light gets in.” Savour that! At a stroke, weakness becomes strength and fault becomes virtue. I feel as though original sin has just been re-explained to me. There was no fall. We were born flawed. Flawed is how we were designed to be. Which means we don’t need redeeming after all. Light? Why go searching for light? The light already shines from us. It got in through our failings.

Leonard Cohen

The lyrics:

The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be.

Ah the wars they will be fought again
The holy dove she will be caught again
bought and sold  and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood of every government –
signs for all to see.

I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring …

You can add up the parts but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

There’s a superb version on YouTube, sung by Perla Batalla & Julie Christensen in 2004:



18 thoughts on “Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’: That’s how the light gets in

  1. I am most impressed by Leonard Cohen
    I love part of the poem Ring the bells that still can ring
    forget your perfect offering
    everything has a crack in it
    that is how the light gets in.
    I am 70 plus and have written a poetry book and would love to start the first page of my book with Leonard Cohen’s ring the bells, of course with Leonard Cohen’s name below the poem. I believe there are four lines
    I am asking permission now to use those lines.
    Thank you,
    Frances L.O’Donnell
    My email address

  2. I’m really unsure about the National Trust parody plagiarism in their latest tv ad which uses Anthem to promote tourism by showing a coastline and ‘singing’ that’s where the time comes in – or something like that. I thought there was some kind of law against it and ‘parody’ was supposed to be funny as decided by a judge. As if a judge is likely to laugh much. I even looked for some kind of acknowledgement for Leonard bu didn’t see one.
    Am I the only one to make the link between this ad’ and Anthem?
    What do others think?

  3. Na het overlijden van mijn man, in het diepe gat gevallen. Zelf altijd gewerkt in psychiatrie, nu pensioen, de crack gevonden zelf-introspectie. Dank voor de wijsheid van Leonard Cohen..

  4. Reblogged this on CARPE DIEM and commented:
    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

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