"By the Rivers Dark" as written by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson....
By the rivers dark
I wandered on.
I lived my life
In Babylon.

And I did forget
My holy song
And I had no strength
In Babylon.

By the rivers dark
Where I could not see
Who was waiting there
Who was hunting me.

And he cut my lip
And he cut my heart.
So I could not drink
From the river dark.

And he covered me,
And I saw within,
My lawless heart
And my wedding ring,

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark
I panicked on.
I belonged at last
To Babylon.

Then he struck my heart
With a deadly force,
And he said, â??This heart
It is not yours.'

And he gave the wind
My wedding ring
And he circled us
With everything.

By the rivers dark,
In a wounded dawn,
I live my life
In Babylon.

Though I take my song
From a withered limb,
Both song and tree,
They sing for him.

Be the truth unsaid
And the blessing gone,
If I forget
My Babylon.

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark,
Where it all goes on
By the rivers dark
In Babylon.


Lyrics submitted by 16996602

"By the Rivers Dark" as written by Sharon Robinson Leonard Cohen

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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By the Rivers Dark song meanings
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8 Comments

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  • +3
    General CommentThis song is a retelling of Psalm 137.

    The Psalm is written by an Israelite mourning having been dragged into the Babylonian exile, and having lost Jerusalem. In the Psalm he and the other Israelites sit down by the rivers of Babylon and weep over the loss of Jerusalem and of the Temple, and the captors mock them asking for a holy song (presumably what would be sung in the Temple) and the writer pleads, "How can we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?" And then he says that if he forgets Jerusalem, his right hand should lose his skill (of playing the lyre) and his tongue should cleave to the roof of his mouth (so he can't sing anymore) and he has a fantasy about taking back Jerusalem and slamming the children of his captors against a rock.

    But it all ties in perfectly with this song. Instead, the singer is trapped in Babylon, and has been for some time. Long enough that he has "lived his life in Babylon" and has "forgot his holy song." This could be seen as losing faith or giving into sin. Then he is hunted by, I would presume, his conscience or God. His heart is struck and what is revealed is lawless (torahless) and his wedding ring, to Babylon. He runs from the realization, and truly becomes a citizen of Babylon by rejecting the Lord and his ways. But he is captured by God and his wedding ring is tossed away.

    So he regains his identity and faith "in a wounded dawn, by the river's dark." And remains in Babylon. Then it more directly references the psalm again when he says he must take his song from a "withered limb" which is his right hand, no longer able to play the lyre. But the big twist ending, is that his blessing should be gone not if he forgets Jerusalem, but if he forgets Babylon. Or, if he forgets how he forsook the LORD and his ways, and was brought back into his Faith, or Identity, or what have you.
    Keljeckon June 29, 2009   Link
  • +3
    General CommentCohen uses religious motifs, figures and symbols as allegories to relationships between man and woman, man and himself, and man and man.
    Seems to me the song is an amalgam of the two interpretations above. In the bible. God himself equates his relationship with the Israelites as that of a married couple, and accuses them of 'cheating' on him, so to speak.
    Whether Cohen uses the religious imagery as an allegory for an infidelity within a relationship, or whether that allegory in itself represents man(or a man)'s falling with God, I really can't say.
    Banekeeperon September 05, 2010   Link
  • +2
    General Comment I think this is more about living your life in a place like Babylon ,but not Babylon.I thinks it's about a life that went in the wrong direction , to the road that leads to the wrong life and spending time in that life , so much time that you can no longer see your life as it would have been.Spending time in Babylon.Then finding yourself one day being struck by God as a wake up call, not listening to that call and continuing your life unabated , then another call and a way out ,god telling you that you are not your own but a spirit that belongs to the universe , a universe that will only let you go so far before you destroy completely that which is you, emerging as a shadow of the person you were when you entered Babylon but a shadow that can see God's will for you .That's the part where the withered limb is offered ,free at last from the constraints that kept you in Babylon.
    Tusketon February 22, 2011   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI would also like to indicate that the line "be the truth unsaid and the blessing gone / if I forget my Babylon" is almost the same like the Jewish prayer "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither" (Psalms, 137:5). This line is cited in so many Jewish rituals (including weddings!) to remind of the longing to Jerusalem (after the Babylonian exile).
    I believe this is the peak of the song. Leonard Cohen, knowing how important this line is in Jewish tradition, twisted it so it refers to Babylon instead of Jerusalem, and thus strikes the listener who knows this prayer (which again is very prominent in Jewish tradition) with great astonishment - the act of betrayal has been completed! The singer pledges allegiance to BABYLON, not Jerusalem!
    For me, this is a very strong line.
    gaggiagon April 30, 2012   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationI always thought this was a song about an animal, such as a deer, that is being hunted my a human. The rivers dark is the place the animal must go to drink, even though he knows the river is dangerous because the hunter waits there for him.
    Trebuchetton May 15, 2013   Link
  • 0
    General CommentNo. It's about a man who cheated on his wife and loses her.

    RJ
    RJSoftwareon June 02, 2010   Link
  • 0
    General CommentWell obviously it's possible to read this song as being about infedility in love. But on a literal level the words strongly refer to God: HE cut my lip, HE struck my heart, sing for HIM. Who else would this HE be but God?
    The references to psalm 137 are more than obvious (thanx Keljeck for your insights on this). And am i mistaken or does the musical scoring refer to Boney M's song on Babylon?
    pingdjipon December 02, 2010   Link
  • 0
    My InterpretationWhen you take the metaphors out, this is about being hunted and suffering:

    'I did not know
    And I could not see
    Who was waiting there,
    Who was hunting me.'

    The singer registers with us that he felt hunted. That's an emergency, an existential emergency, it's hardly comfy.

    This is what the hunter did to him:

    'And he cut my lip
    And he cut my heart.
    So I could not drink
    From the river dark.'

    The singer was cut. He had been addicted or incorrigible to the love of Babylon and could only be disenchanted by this brutality of love.

    'And he gave the wind
    My wedding ring
    And he circled us
    With everything.'

    That's a lovely thing, naturally sad because the singer had been both the hunted and the hunter all along.

    How come?

    'And he covered me,
    And I saw within,'

    The singer is now covered by the hunter (the word hunter covers him in the sense of it applying). Only now can he see. (Previously, he 'could not see'). 'And I saw within'. He saw (understood) the pain of life counched here in terms of the self-division involved in conflicting fidelities:

    My lawless heart
    And my wedding ring,

    The singer is the hunter now and he has succeeded in the conquest of himself.

    'And he gave the wind
    My wedding ring
    And he circled us
    With everything.'

    Everything contained within the ring, the ring of unity, invisibility, purity.
    davjamon April 20, 2015   Link

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