Allegory, Mysticism, Dylan and Leonard Cohen

/ by Noah Charney

Well I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?


Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time by Bronzino
The passing of Leonard Cohen, and the Nobel victory for Bob Dylan, are examples of poet-lyricists rewarded for not just penning piercing, honest words, but for inking their music with mysticism. The most haunting stanzas from both troubadours are those that seem to have a hidden meaning, a textual puzzle, a riddle to be solved through hard thinking. Many of their lyrics feels like Biblical allegories, and their exegeses, like those undertaken by professors (or the website Rap Genius), will reveal secret truths to the initiated.


Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah


Humans resonating with allegory or symbolism in art is nothing new. In fact, the surprise is that there is something new that employs it. I’m a professor of art history specializing in iconography—the study of symbols in art. Symbolism, puzzle paintings, were commonplace in the pre-Modern era, with my favorite painting, and subject of one of my Masters theses, a case in point: Bronzino’s Allegory of Love and Lust, one of the world’s most famous paintings, and one of the most riddling. But even its title sounds like a Leonard Cohen album, or perhaps a descriptive for his entire oeuvre.


Cohen and Dylan share this mantle of spinner of symbols, writing allegorical anthems. Dylan’s most memorable songs, like “All Along the Watchtower,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and “Love Minus Zero,” all feel like they are conveying some deeper truth through stories and images that have meaning beyond what they superficially convey.


All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl


That contemporary musicians should write in what feels like an ancient, perhaps lost art form made them distinctive and branded them as modern. Music fans who take their tunes seriously, who listen to albums all the way through, like to pick apart lyrics, cracking them open to see what is inside. I remember the first song that beckoned me to do so. “The Weight” by The Band (which was, of course, originally Dylan’s backing band):


I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead

I just need some place where I can lay my head

Hey mister can you tell me where a man might find a bed?

He just grinned and shook my hand, “no” was all he said.


It sounds like an outtake from the Christmas story, and the next verse brings in the Devil. That Biblical echo gives the lyrics weight (as the title suggests) and prompts listeners to probe for deeper meaning.


Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” which he has said was about Joan Baez, transforms her into a literary figure decked in symbol, which we are meant to analyze and apply to our understanding of her character.


With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh, do they think could bury you?
With your pockets well protected at last,
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,
Who could they get to carry you?


With the death of Leonard Cohen, whose “Hallelujah” is perhaps the quintessential quasi-Biblical allegory song, and the canonization of Dylan by the Nobel Committee (as if he needed further canonizing), we see a renaissance of the Renaissance approach to packing art with hidden truths, hinted at through coded symbols, now transferred into contemporary song. It’s a beautiful thing, requiring our lightning-paced world to slow down, to consider and drink in words, to roll them around in our minds, because we feel certain that, if we can solve the puzzle, truth will be our reward.


The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers' nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring
The wind howls like a hammer
The night wind blows cold n' rainy
My love, she's like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.