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From Leonard Cohen's "Halleluj'ah":

Baby, I've been here before --

I know this room, I've walked this floor:

I used to live alone before I knew you.

I've seen your flag on the marble arch:

Love is not a victory march;

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.

I believe I have a clear and coherent understanding of this song, with the exception of one line: "I've seen your flag on the marble arch." Based on my understanding of Cohen's work as a whole, I am all but certain that it is a reference to something in the Jewish Scriptural canon, possibly from the Prophets or from later Jewish history. However, my lack of knowledge prevents me from identifying the reference. Can anyone else?

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In an article in Haaretz, Elon Gilad and Ruth Schuster write:

The “marble arch” may allude to Titus’ Victory Arch in Rome, a monument celebrating the Roman final victory over the Jews. If so, Cohen is comparing his lover to the Roman victors and himself to the devastated Jews, who had just lost their Temple. Like the revolt, he is crushed.

  • This answer would be improved by some more elaboration on that quote. How does this fit into the context of the poem, or the rest of the phrase "I've seen your flag"? – Rand al'Thor Dec 19 '18 at 15:28
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    It's worth mentioning that -- having "seen her bathing on the roof" -- David would marry Bathsheeba. Their son, Solomon, built the First Temple in Jerusalem. The destruction of its successor, the Second Temple, is commemorated on the Arch of Titus. A cold and broken Hallelujah, indeed. – Gaurav Dec 20 '18 at 2:19
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I don't think Cohen has ever made this clear, so we can only speculate. While I agree that the Arch of Titus makes the most sense, three other candidates jump out at me:

  • Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, NYC, the city Cohen was in when he wrote Hallelujah. Soldiers marched under this arch at the New York City Victory Parade of 1946 (source), but I can't find any reference to a flag on this arch.

  • The Brandenburg Gate has a complicated political history, being used as a symbol of Nazi Germany and then of Communist East Berlin. The flag on this gate was of particular significance: according to Wikipedia, "A Soviet flag flew from a flagpole atop the gate from 1945 until 1957, when it was replaced by an East German flag. Since the reunification of Germany, the flag and the pole have been removed. During the 1953 riots in East Berlin the Soviet flag was torn off by West Germans." It is also associated with a victory march: the Berlin Victory Parade of 1945 passed by this gate. Unfortunately, the gate is made of stone, not marble -- but maybe Cohen was using poetic license?

  • As a Canadian who lived in the United States, Cohen might have been thinking of the Peace Arch, which has both the American and Canadian flags flying above it. However, Cohen was born in Montreal and lived in New York City, and so he might not be familiar with an arch built on the US-Canada border between Vancouver and Seattle.
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    This is a fantastic answer; thank you. Indeed, I wonder why you think the Arch of Titus is the clear winner here, other than that Biblical imagery is the mode of the rest of the song. (Is there any talk of a flag surrounding the Arch of Titus?) That said, I don't disagree, and think there is a strong chance he may have meant both those nearly-identical arches -- I'm talking about the Washington Square Arch and the Arch of Titus -- especially if he was spending time near Washington Square. – SAH Dec 20 '18 at 4:53
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Possibly the reference to seeing her flag on the marble arch refers to seeing her conquered, or taken, by another? Since the following line is "Our love is not a victory march" - A victory march for one, implies a defeat for another. I can't speak to which arch may have been intended, but I think this interpretation fits with the other themes in the song.

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    Welcome on Literature Stack Exchange and thank you for your contribution. Is there anything in the song, besides that flag, that supports your claim about "seeing her conquered"? (If someone/something is conquered, wouldn't their flag be lowered and/or replaced?) – user800 Dec 27 '18 at 19:29
  • @FairToMiddlin' Thank you, and nice name! However, there is no doubt in my mind that the "you" of this poem is the woman (or women generally) in Leonard Cohen's life. I think you're correct that the tenor of this metaphor-and of most in the poem-is romantic triumph, specifically hers over him (whereas his last and only route to triumph is finally in his "Halleluj-ah," his unassailable connection with G-d.) – SAH Jan 1 at 4:49
  • For "Leonard Cohen" read "the speaker' – SAH Jan 1 at 14:19

protected by Community Jan 23 at 9:43

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