Joan of Arc’s Understanding


And then she clearly understood
If he was fire, oh then she must be wood.

When I was little and listening to this song, this was the only bit I didn’t like. I enjoyed the drama of her death, but I did not like her clear understanding that she was wood! I think I was at the age when I had just started to identify myself as a girl. I just hated the idea that she suddenly thought she was wood instead. It seemed like such a stupid thing to say. Yes, I could understand that he was fire, but it seemed to be a great, wild leap of logic to mean that made her wood.

I clearly understood she was a girl, and if I had met Joan of Arc at this time I would have told her ‘No, you are not wood. You are a girl, like me!’

I still feel a bit like that. It does seem slightly uncharacteristic that she would say she is wood – or just something to be consumed by Fire. But I think it is about her bravery in facing the very difficult reality of what is coming next. Rather than pretend she is not destined for the flames – she accepts it. I think this could be said to represent man facing his mortality head on.

At the beginning of the song she was in a state of unknowing – as suggested by her dull armour. Now she has met Fire, she enters a state of knowing – ‘clearly understood’. In order to keep the multiple meanings of Fire open, Cohen suggests that what she understands is simply – that she will meet the Fire, and whatever Fire may be, it will be able to burn her very well.

We are forced to combine the imagery of the effect of fire on wood, and it’s effect on our heroine. This is a powerful way to tell the listener what will happen, because it means we use our own experience of what burning looks like – and apply it to a scene we can only imagine.



Leonard Cohen’s ‘Joan of Arc’ – Joan’s Reply to Fire

‘Well then fire, make your body cold

I’m going to give you mine to hold,

Saying this she climbed inside

To be his one, to be his only bride.’

Leonard Cohen utilises imprecise and abstract statements rather than particular and specific ones. This is true of the character of Fire in ‘Joan of Arc, because it or he could be said to represent many ideas –

– Death/Mortality

– All consuming sexual or spiritual love

– The ghost of Nico’s rapist who was sentenced to death

– Cohen himself, and his attraction to Nico

– Temptation

– Pain and suffering

– Fear

– Something else

Whatever the Fire is, Joan of Arc talks directly to it and tells it what to do! I think this is about preparing the mind for any struggle. We have to get into the mindset where what we hope to achieve seems really possible. As she was heading for the flames, Joan of Arc acts as if she still has control, and it is this which makes her so eternally brave.

Rather than be dragged towards the flames, Joan of Arc decides to give herself to them. It is about staying brave even when things seem as bad as they can be. If she has to enter the flames, then she will stay in control, by acting as though it was always her decision to do so. This stops the experience being so humiliating and therefore reduces her pain.

Fire concludes with ‘Myself I long for love and light, but must it come so cruel and oh so bright?’

There is a healing quality in this. Fire is a powerful element, but even he is in awe of the uncompromising and determined woman he has wedded. In the song Cohen is careful not to say that Fire actually kills her. He adapts it to ‘He took the dust of Joan of Arc.’ 

Dust shining in light, is one of the smallest things we can see – without the help of a microscope. So by saying that Fire took the dust of her, it draws attention to the physical but reduces its significance. Only her dust was taken.

Through the song we learn about her heroic nature, and it doesn’t seem that Fire’s action is able to alter her nature at all. The story is very dramatic, and Cohen tells us that it is Fire who was altered because of the meeting! He had longed for her, but he didn’t get what he was expecting – the experience was ‘cruel’ and ‘bright’. He reflects on this, and wonders if there could have been another way. Joan of Arc is immortalised into legend as a woman who stood up for what she believed in and never relented. Fire continues to be an element that relies on fuel to survive. Joan of Arc’s heart was a self sufficient fire all of it’s own, and the physical flames of human suffering were powerless to reduce her mythical spirit.



Fire’s Introduction in Leonard Cohen’s ‘Joan of Arc’

Well, I’m glad to hear you talk this way,
You know I’ve watched you riding every day
And something in me yearns to win
Such a cold and lonesome heroine.
And who are you? she sternly spoke
To the one beneath the smoke.
Why, I’m fire, he replied,
And I love your solitude, I love your pride.

Previously in the song Joan of Arc said ‘I’m tired of the war. I want the kind of work I had before.’.

I believe this refers to the way that Nico sings, with a world weary, matter of fact, and very beautiful voice.

Like many other great musicians at the time, Leonard Cohen was infatuated with her. In real life it is difficult to say the right thing at the right time. In the song he is able to imagine a conversation with Nico where he says exactly what he wants to say. He also flatters her in casting her as his mythical version of the historical Joan of Arc.

At age 15 Nico was working as a temp for the U.S. Air Force. A black American Sergeant raped her. She kept quiet about it, but he was found out and sent to court. She had to testify for the prosecution at his trial. He was sentenced to death and shot.

‘Not only does she have to carry the horror of the rape but the secret guilt of somehow being complicit, by her testimony, in his execution. Sex for Nico is irrevocably associated with punishment.’ – James Young in Songs They Don’t Play On the Radio

I think perhaps Leonard Cohen had heard of the trauma she had suffered. He related it to the suffering of Joan of Arc who was put on trial as well as being burnt alive.

I think he casts himself as Fire in the poem, because of the complications of desiring a woman who associates sex with punishment. It seems that he wants to seduce her. However he also fears that the experience, if he got that far, would be damaging or distance them. I think it is this conflict of deep drives – the drive to protect and love, versus the drive to seduce and possess, which inspired the song. Perhaps he hoped that by showing his recognition of her great suffering, and recognising her bravery he could help her heal. Nico remained deeply unimpressed by Leonard Cohen, but the song has inspired lots of other people.


Here is Nico speaking about her own work in 1985 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOeU-BF78gM 

In the interview she recalls that was Jim Morrison who told her to write songs.

She appreciated his directness, and says brightly –

 ‘Sometimes somebody has to tell you what to do!’

Her father suffered brain damage, so perhaps she was seeking guidance to replace what she had lost.


At the very end of this interview she says she has just one regret –

‘That I was born a woman, instead of a man. That is my one regret.’

The historical Joan of Arc dressed as a man for practical reasons – to lead her troops into battle. Nico, the inspiration for Cohen’s mythical Joan of Arc, wishes she actually was a man, presumably so that she never had to suffer being sexually abused. She was always disconnected from the world, and perhaps she feels that this early trauma caused her to separate herself. She found her place in Andy Warhol’ inner circle, and was interested in the philosophical ideas being bounced around there. She comes across as someone who finds it easier to talk about ideas, than her own history. Here she is with her close friend Andy Warhol –




Nico of the Velvet Underground, and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Joan of Arc’

Leonard Cohen said that his song Joan of Arc ‘came through’ Nico of the Velvet Underground. I think these lines are about her-

She said, I’m tired of the war,
I want the kind of work I had before,

Listening to Nico, I hear a tired or world weary quality in her voice – but it isn’t sentimental. Also her voice has an unusually matter of fact tone, which contrasts in the songs with Lou Reed’s strange and emotional lyrics.

Typically a wedding would be an emotional time – so Cohen draws attention to her lack of sentimentality in the lines –

A wedding dress or something white
To wear upon my swollen appetite.

suggesting that the wedding dress is a practical item to her, a covering. Her focus is on the whiteness, and not so much on the wedding or the dress. Nico said she felt very disconnected from the world – and these lyrics seem to describe that.

‘Swollen appetite’ sounds unsentimental and erotic. I think it suits her. Nico is turned on by music but she doesn’t let it alter the coolness of her voice. Her bands name ‘The Velvet Underground’ is similarly erotic and unsentimental.

Here she is carefully cutting her fringe and smiling, as captured by Andy Warhol. The song on the video is Nico’s beautiful version of ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’.



If you have any ideas about how Nico inspired this great Cohen song, then I would like to hear from you. It is possible that he said that the song was about her merely as flirtation after she said he was ‘completely unnecessary’. However I like the idea that she really did inspire the initial writing of the song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjjDmX9Tkss – Nico singing Lou Reed’s Femme Fatale

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPf5Ki9ygVY – Leonard Cohen’s Joan of Arc

Wikipedia supports the idea that Nico was the inspiration for the song. The encyclopedia also notes that the structure in which the song is both sung and recited on parallel tracks – most obvious in the first and last four lines was inspired by Medieval music.

Nico first met Jim Morrison when he was tripping and naked and curious about her hair. She thought he was trying to kill her. Later they became good friends and she said he was her ‘soul brother’. I think perhaps she was harsh on Leonard Cohen out of loyalty to Jim Morrison. She used to light a candle for Jim Morrison every night, although he was alive at that time.