Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
Like a worm on a hook
Like a knight from some old fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for thee

If I, if I have been unkind
I hope that you can just let it go by
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you

Oh, like a baby, stillborn
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me
But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much"
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"

Oh, like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free


Lyrics submitted by rgirl, edited by clearsky, kalluk

Bird on the Wire Lyrics as written by Leonard Cohen

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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Bird on the Wire song meanings
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22 Comments

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  • +7
    General Comment

    I have always thought the verse "Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir I have tried in my way to be free." to be very poignant in it's imagery. The bird on the wire is helpless and flutters about desperately in an attempt to shake itself free, likewise the drunk, helpless and reaching for something that will release him. Our lives can seem as narrow and meaningless as that of the caged bird, so we turn to the bottle, religion or whatever to seek release. Love can be the ultimate release, but even here the singer feels caught on the wire and torn everyone who reached out to him. He seems forever like the bird fluttering on the wire trying to shake itself free and his plea to his love seems another instance of the drunk in the choir offering prayers for release........a beautiful but sad song.

    NWNmoonon September 22, 2006   Link
  • +7
    General Comment

    "I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch, he said to me, "You must not ask for so much." And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door, She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"

    Everyone likes to tell people what to believe, and from different view points, all people are valid in their own beliefs. But for someone who is lost, hearing one person say, "you must not ask for so much" and seeing someone say the exact opposite thing can be hard when you know where both of them are coming from.

    All you can do is "try in your own way" when creating a worldview. It can only apply to you, and to try to strap onto the coat tails of those around you and let them influence your mind is not achieving freedom, it's establishing slavery of the mind.

    I don't think the first three lines are nearly as significant as:

    "Like a baby, stillborn, like a beast with his horn I have torn everyone who reached out for me."

    Both of those things are hurting people for a reason that they can't help. Everyone understands that there are some things you can't control, like the examples of a beast having a horn or a baby dying. It's very frustrating to not be able to change or control those things, but they continue to hurt people, and you have to be still and live with it. It's saying he is who he is, and he could change it and be fake ("if I, if I have been untrue..."), or he could continue and be who he truly is, and go on hurting people ("if I, if I have been unkind...").

    It's a beautiful song, really.

    njadams10on July 30, 2009   Link
  • +3
    General Comment

    I believe this song is about the artist's bane: society. The artist tries, through his art, to escape society, the reality surrounding it, and its boundaries, but society is ever present: the artist has to make money in order to live ( eating, having a home, traveling in order to show his art, etc ). As the artist discovers this through the years, he will try to go through boundaries - boundaries created by society. In this way, the artist defies what is considered normal behavior and often upsets the people around him. In this song, the artist apologizes to those who are dear to him. Of course, the bird is the symbolism of freedom, the freedom of creation is as infinite as it is limited - by the wire ( society ). The true birds are those whom you never hear or see - they do not travel, they do not own houses and they barely have enough to eat. It is about a sacrifice that each and every artist has to make.

    Ex Abruptoon September 30, 2008   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    Maybe I'm looking too deep into it, but I see it as a kind of repeating sadly ironic story. I think the song is a meditation on how he paradoxically claims to want freedom and independence, but also wants to be truly loved and cared for; and how he wants to be forgiven for seemingly always hurting the only ones who show him any compassion, but denies culpability by blaming external factors like people, the world and even fate to a degree- as if that's just the way he is. Sort of like a battle between freedom/aimlessness vs. stillness/peace

    the first two lines has two things that don't traditionally belong together. A bird on a wire can come and go as it pleases and no one notices. The drunk in the choir I think signifies a despondent, miserable person that wants to be saved, but won't improve himself. The way he stays free is by anonymity or by lack of commitment.

    Next stanza I think deals with denying the importance of the past and wanting to have a pre-determined happy ending with a romantic interest. The worm on the hook I think is saying he just trying to get out, but she caught she went for him, and the Knight in a book suggests he wants fairy tale happy ending. The ribbons are a reference to gifts ladies gave their knights as tokens of devotion, meaning there's been other women before that he's probably spun the same story to. He almost expects her to forget whatever bad he's done, and that she's the only one he wouldn't really betray

    Third stanza talks about how he's helpless and longs to be cherished like a baby, but is inherently unlovable and repulsive like a stillborn, and that he cant help but hurt others, but goes on to promise that he'll find a way to make up for what seems to be a long history of hurting others if he can get just another chance.

    The fourth has him running into a stranger that seems to be a walking contradiction like himself- but seems to be a sign for him stop waiting for someone to "fix" him. The beggar who seems to be worse off in life, tells him basically that he expects too much from others- I'm guessing a sign to stop drifting through life as if he's doomed to loneliness and needs to be saved by someone. But then the pretty woman invites him to her room which will probably start his whole cycle of desperately trying to get someone to give him the security and true love that he's been unable to find in himself.

    admorkenon November 30, 2017   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    The only line that seems out of place is "like a knight from some old-fashioned book". Does he mean that he imagines himself as a great, noble lover?

    charrbinon April 06, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    Beautiful song. Here's my take on it:

    Being free is being you. By being so, you risk hurting people, but you also stnd to become who you act like - see the beggar and the pretty woman. The hurt that results from attempting to follow your heart, is not intended to cause pain to others, it's only doing what you believe to be right at the time. The bird on the wire is like the person above said, it's connected but at the same time apart - a necessity in any life, which limits but also affirms - the wire soon becomes something you are dependent upon.

    moomoosnakeon October 26, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    "Knight in some old fashoned book" is referring to the knight being STUCK.. (The bird, the drunk, the worm).. He's gonna be in the book and he's gonna die - nothing he can do about it

    jamesbristowon July 22, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    "Like a beast with his horn I have torn everyone who reached out for me"

    To me this single verse sums up my interpretation of the entire song. Here Cohen is writing about the distance he maintains from people – never quite letting them into his inner life.

    I think the "horn" in this instance is phallic – Cohen is talking about his intentions with relationships. He didn't want to get close to people, he was just after sex.

    Cohen is remorseful for how clumsy he has been with those people who had feelings for him – and how he has hurt a lot of people who thought he wanted to get closer. Clumsy like a drunk in a choir. Clumsy like a bird wobbling on a wire.

    Cohen wants to be free – but he has broken a few hearts in trying to stay free.

    rob1177228on July 05, 2021   Link
  • 0
    General Comment

    something along those lines--the next line after that is "i have saved all my ribbons for thee."

    it's a prayer or a love song, or both, depending on how you look at it.

    misterbojangleson February 14, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General Comment

    I think this song is about the kind of small rebellions that we all attempt in life- 'like a drunk in a midnight choir' - nobody notices the drunk is there amongst all the other singers, but he's getting a kick out of his small rebellion - 'Like a bird on the wire' - the bird is free and above and apart from the world but still connected to it.

    It's about how we would all love to be free (from reality), but we have to live with the fact that it is impossible.

    alice84on July 15, 2006   Link

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