Pop Music, Rock, Theology Through Music

Whenever I May Find Her: A Song For Paradise Lost

Creation of Eve--Paradise Lost, Dore

“Adam and Eve” by Gustave Doré

Man was made for woman and woman for man. As much as our culture would like to ignore or deny this fact, nature proclaims it daily. And through the ages, artists have been unable to resist its power. Has there ever been a subject which has inspired more artistic expression? And yet, it also seems that the magic of pure, undying love is one that all too many people feel is too good to be true. In this post, I explore two of my favorite love songs: Simon & Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and Marc Cohn’s “True Companion.” At the same time, I point out the contrast between the songs’ idealized vision and some of the comments their authors have made about the reality of that vision. Although they are able to give us a beautiful picture of romantic love in their art, they believe that it is only an illusion, that they are unable to make the vision a reality in their own lives. I find this at once tragic and believable. In our cynical, fallen world, is it any wonder they should think that way?

This contrast was brought home to me in a famous live performance of “For Emily,” which Paul Simon chose to stage back-to-back with a different song called “Overs.” He explained that “For Emily” isn’t really about a girl named Emily, it’s about a belief. Then “Overs,” a song about a relationship that’s falling apart, is about “the loss of that belief.” Here is that performance of “Emily.” (For a performance with better sound quality, go here):

And here is the follow-up performance of “Overs” (lyrics here):

Of the two songs, “For Emily” was by far the most popular at the time and has remained a much-loved classic through the decades. So why is it that the song which Simon later looked back on with some embarrassment as a sappy nothing has endured so long, while the wry cynicism of “Overs” hasn’t? Perhaps it’s because the desire to “believe” runs so strong in the human spirit. Or as Simon himself wrote in a different song called “Train in the Distance,” “The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.” “For Emily” gives us, literally, a dream, a “what if”? But Simon seems to think it’s a little bit like The Matrix—it offers us exactly what we want to hear:

And when you ran to me, your
Cheeks flushed with the night
We walked on frosted fields
Of juniper and lamplight.
I held your hand…

And when I awoke
And felt you warm and near,
I kissed your honey hair
With my grateful tears.
Oh, I love you girl.
Oh, I love you.

But when the rubber meets the road, when you get down to the nitty-gritty of real, complex human relationships, things aren’t so dream-like. Things fall apart. Things break. Things get stale. It is this bleak, monotonous and decidedly unromantic picture that Simon paints for us in “Overs”:

We might as well be apart.
It hardly matters,
We sleep separately.

And drop a smile passing in the hall
But there’s no laughs left
‘Cause we laughed them all.
And we laughed them all
In a very short time.

But is this picture really more “real” than “For Emily?” Or is it only giving us part of the picture, part of the reality?

Fast-forward a couple decades to another young writer who’s just put the finishing touches on a romantic lyric. His girlfriend of seven years is much more interested in marriage than he is, but as an artist he’s so pleased with the lyric that he sings it to her, and she takes it as a marriage proposal. “Men are scum,” he laughs in concert when he shares the story later.

That writer was Marc Cohn, and the song was “True Companion”:


While the song went on to become a beloved wedding standard, Cohn’s own marriage sadly ended in divorce in the late 90s. In a 1992 interview with magazine, Cohn described the song as the most sentimental he ever wrote, bordering on “queasy.” He continued: “It’s the guy thinking in ideal terms. I was still so ambiguous about marriage when I wrote it that it was a sort of wish-fulfillment song. And to be honest, I’ve only slowly grown towards the sort of feelings the song is about. I’m still not there.”

Much like Simon, Cohn looked on his work as little more than wishful thinking. Yet it’s a standard he wanted to attain. He wished he could sincerely feel the passion that pulsed through his own heartfelt lyrics:

When the years have done irreparable harm
I can see us walking, slowly, arm in arm
Just like the couple on the corner do
‘Cause girl I will always be in love with you.
When I look in your eyes,
I’ll still see that spark,
Until the shadows fall,
Until the room grows dark.
And when I leave this Earth,
I’ll be with the angels standin’.
I’ll be out there waiting for my true companion.

But like the couple in “Overs,” he and his wife couldn’t keep up that spark. It was only a dream.

But dreams don’t come from nowhere. Desires don’t arise by accident. Whether we realize it or not, there’s a part of ourselves that still remembers the Garden of Eden. Non-Christians dismiss it as a chance illusion, but those of us who believe God’s revelation through Scripture can clearly trace the source of what they can’t help feeling and expressing. It is a longing for paradise lost, a foretaste of paradise restored. Far from being an illusion of reality, this longing points to something that will one day be far more real than this fallen world, where hearts are broken and people fall out of love all too easily. It was not so in the beginning, and it will not be so in the world to come, when God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes.

Even here in this fallen world, we have the opportunity through Christ to experience the joy of a loving marital union built on His sure foundation. For it is only when we set our affections on Him that we can truly know the sweetness of an enduring, earthly love. Without Christ, our joy is a passing thing. In Christ, we find the joy of knowing Him, and all other joys with it.

These things have I spoken to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. — John 15:11


One thought on “Whenever I May Find Her: A Song For Paradise Lost

  1. Pingback: Two Articles for Retuned | Southern Gospel Yankee

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