Cassandra

Diane Wakoski: On "Cassandra"

To focus on Jeffers's women seems beside the whole point of Jeffers's philosophy, which is that men and women alike ("You and I, Cassandra") are doomed in their human, evolutionarily misguided drive to wreak destruction through greed, avarice, desire, and power-mongering. No doubt there is a personal psyche at work in Jeffers which allows him to portray women as so much bigger, more flexible, stronger than most of his male figures. But I interpret Jeffers as caught in the paradox of trying to have an "inhuman" vision while still bound by his humanity, which includes the fact that he is a man and limited by that gender.

It is not accidental that, in this lyric poem, "Cassandra," coming after the bitter time of his Double Axe persecution and unofficial literary blacklisting, he makes himself equal or a twin to a woman. It is a gesture, I think, showing his stance as a poet, and one that can be found in many other of the short lyric poems. The poet is outside, an observer. "It" (the poet) can be either male, as Jeffers is, or female, as Cassandra is. The haunting lament, "You and I, Cassandra," is a statement of his equality with her, and the hopelessness of the human condition out of which, for the duration of the poem, they both remain. They both have given up their personal (i.e., gender) identities in the pursuit of truth. This lyric offers a glimpse into Jeffers's view of the godly androgyny which he wishes he could imagine in an "inhuman" world. When Mark Mitchell illustrates that Jeffers refers to God with the masculine pronoun yet implies a female identity, what I draw from that is androgyny--that god is neither male nor female, or both, in some non-sexual, non-gendered way. I think we must accept that Jeffers could himself hardly conceive of what this meant.

Arthur B. Coffin: On "Cassandra"

By 1948, in The Double Axe, the next to the last volume of verse published during the poet's lifetime, we are not surprised to hear Jeffers say, in Cassandra,

 

        Poor bitch, be wise.

No: you'll still mumble in a corner a crust of truth, to men

And gods disgusting.--You and I, Cassandra.

 

This, Jeffers said in a book that bore an unusual Publishers' Note, which announced that Random House felt "compelled to go on record with its disagreement over some of the political views pronounced by the poet in this volume." The Cassandra of the poem The Tower Beyond Tragedy (1925) had predicted such a war as the readers of The Double Axe volume had just come through. Furthermore, Jeffers had preached throughout the thirties that such war was inevitable, unless the United States changed its course of action in world affairs, and in Such Counsels You Gave to Me (1937) and in Be Angry at the Sun (1941) he foretold events that history was yet to record.

Jeffers' remark to Cassandra (in the later poem) came at perhaps the most trying time in his career: the principles to which he steadfastly clung had apparently been proved by the events of history, as he saw them, but there seemed to be no one listening. What was more, he had to endure, with "cheerful consent," as he generously put it, the singular treatment from his publisher. He was right from his point of view, but, when he needed the emotional support, very few of his readers gave him credit for his perspicacity.

Robert Zallar: On "Cassandra"

[Note: Jeffers wrote about Cassandra twice in his career, first in "The Tower Beyond Tragedy" and later in "Cassandra"]

In radical contrast to the visionary is the prophet, whose prototype is Cassandra in "The Tower Beyond Tragedy. " If chastity is the limit of Onorio's visions, Cassandra's derive from sexual initiation by a god. Whereas Onorio's visions are the sole value of his life, Cassandra's powers are the curse of hers. Onorio wants to commit suicide when his visions abandon him; Cassandra wants to die because she cannot be free of hers. The figure of the pitcher that Onorio uses to describe his sense of "containing" his visions contrasts sharply with Cassandra's description of the gift of prophecy: "he hates me, the God, he will never / Take home the gift of the bridleless horse / The stallion, the unbitted stallion." The bridleless stallion is an image of rampant sexuality; it signifies not only the bridal gift but the bridal act, the god himself. We have only to consider the development of this theme in "Roan Stallion," whose heroine seeks union with the divine through an act of bestiality. In Cassandra's monologue, the gift of prophecy is closely associated with the instigation of desire:

 

I would not let him touch me though love of him maddened me

Till he fed me that poison, till he planted that fire in me,

The girdle flew loose then.

 

Cassandra's insistence on the gift of prophecy as the price of her seduction is the Promethean sin of coveting divine powers, and it is therefore visited on her as a punishment instead. The nature of that punishment - that she forever inspire disbelief - poses the dilemma of prophecy in its acutest form. The content of prophecy is truth, and the prophet's task is to speak it. It is precisely this moral imperative which distinguishes the prophet from the visionary. Onorio's visions are private and idiosyncratic; they have no truth value, that is, no message for the community. He relates them as fables, signs that "mean something in their own country but ... / Nothing in this." But the truth value of Cassandra's visions is absolute; that is, their relevance to the community is total; and therefore the mandate to communicate them is imperative. This is why she must prophesy even though the gods ordain that it will be in vain. Whereas Onorio is exalted to the role of spectator Cassandra is reduced to it, and what she beholds is fate, the truth that cannot be altered because it cannot be shared. Cassandra's knowledge places her "beyond humanity" not because, like Orestes, she has renounced or transcended the will, but because she has been deprived of the power to act efficaciously. If that power is, within the context of fate, an illusion, it is nonetheless the illusion by which all men (except Orestes) live. Neither god nor human, Cassandra is isolated on a height of solitude and terror, the captive of history, the witness of the unity-in-change that is the vision of universal process. So she is "sick after steadfastness, " that is, the cessation of truth; she longs for the illusion of stasis that only the counter-motion of human will can impart to things; and failing that, she can only long for death. She is the prisoner of inaction as Clytemnestra is the prisoner of will, and it is only appropriate that Orestes deliver them both.

For the Greeks themselves, the situation could not have been so radically posed. For them, the obligation of the prophet was to speak, not to convince. He was a messenger, an intermediary; often (as in the case of the Delphic oracle) he served the god directly or lived in his precincts; at other times he was (like Tiresias) a recluse or hermit who lived on the fringe of the community, His role was not hortatory; the success of his communication was not his concern. The prophet as proselytizer or leader of his people is a Jewish mode, and quite foreign to Greek thought. One might even say that Cassandra is precisely the opposite of a figure such as Moses: alien, captive, powerless, degraded.

Cassandra, indeed, has every reason not to prophesy. She has no social or moral obligation to the community, and can scarcely wish to tell the Greeks anything that may be of advantage to them. Nor can she serve as messenger or intermediary for the gods, since they have specifically disabled her for this task. Nonetheless she prophesies, despite the futility of her situation, because the content of truth must be spoken. Prophecy is that which must be spoken, regardless of audience, effect, or belief; it is an unconditional imperative. Jeffers examines this in his late meditation "Cassandra". . . .

In Jeffers' modern reading of the Cassandra myth, it is men who deny the truth, not the gods who deny it to them, but the essential paradox is the same: The truth must be spoken, but cannot be believed. This paradox is ironic in the Greek myth - indeed, only in terms of irony could it be so radically stated - but tragic in a judaeo-Christiati context. Pagan culture was an adherence to personal values, whereas ours is an adherence to morality, that is, behavior toward others. For the pagan, truth telling is a matter of honor; for the Jew or Christian, it is an obligation toward the other, the sharing of the Word. For the Greeks, Cassandra must be as she is, for there is no ultimate message, no revelation, and the gods cannot foreknow their own will. What Cassandra sees is merely the will of the gods as it unfolds, and she is permitted to see it only because she is unable to communicate it, lest the balance between gods and men be destroyed.

Mary DeShazer: On "Cassandra"

A solitary silence is implicit in the fate and voice of Cassandra, the female prophet of Greek mythology punished by Zeus for insubordination by being awarded a gift of prophecy to which no one would listen. In "Cassandra" Bogan treats the plight of this female figure as a metaphor for that of woman poet. . . .

Cassandra's stance as a female prophet dissociated from other women and from other prophets parallels Bogan's view of herself as a woman poet, alienated from other women and their "silly tasks" as well as from male poets. Like Cassandra, doomed by her own plaintive cry, the poet is isolated by her poetic gift, at once a debilitating and an empowering force. Neither the poet nor Cassandra chooses her gift of isolation, and both are ambivalent toward this power imposed by forces beyond their control. Cassandra's song literally attacks her, tearing through her breast and side; its source, madness, overwhelms its unwilling victim again and again. Ironically, then, both strength and weakness lie at the root of Cassandra's gift of prophecy. She is chosen for divinity yet not saved from suffering, empowered with song but ignored by all. Yet from this same song she derives her power.

Cassandra's mad, screaming voice provides a significant contrast to the deliberate predictions of other prophets from mythology--the blind Tiresias, for example, or Isaiah. Instead, her warnings might be likened to those of the oracle of Delphi, whose riddled prophecies often went unheeded because their complexity defied mortal interpretation. Cassandra's plight and its attendant powers recall the conflict which Bogan describes in "The Daemon," as the poet is forced to recount repeatedly "the word ... the flesh, the blow" to "the lot who little bore." Clearly Bogan perceives herself as a modern version of Cassandra, plagued and yet empowered by an insistent muse to speak not in a bardic voice, but in an oracular one. In "Cassandra," Bogan shrieks her seer's truths through the potent voice of a woman twice disenfranchised: by the madness which "chooses out my voice again, / Again," and by the alienating yet restorative silence which receives her unheeded cries, turning them back upon themselves.

From "’My Scourge, My Sister’: Louise Bogan’s Muse." In Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Diane Wood Middlebrook and Marilyn Yalom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press., 1985. Copyright © 1985 by the University of Michigan.

Lee Upton: On "Cassandra"

In "Cassandra," first published in the Nation in December 1924, Bogan explicitly writes of the lyric cry as violent. In an eight-line stanza of alternate rhymes she makes Cassandra, like the "fury" of her third book, an inciting presence whose madness is a kind of knowledge inseparable from her isolation. Like Daphne, Cassandra is also Apollo's victim, her prophecies cursed by Apollo to be disbelieved. Yet it is not the disaster she foretells so much as the very act of speech that preoccupies this speaker, not the content of her speech so much as recognition of the disruptive power projected by her own voice as a dismissed prophet, a position of particular significance for the woman poet. Adopting an opposite position to Daphne, Cassandra is "shrieking" rather than dumb. In this mythological figure Bogan makes manifest the essential violence of her poetic. Language performs oppositionally; it is itself a violence (a "wing" that "tears"). Indeed, the "wing" that "tears" will be echoed decades later in Bogan's late poem "The Daemon," in which a woman is compelled to speak of the origin of her inspiration: "The bruise in the side." In "Cassandra," the poet must herself, at the moment that she perceives violence, recognize a culture's "tricks of lust and pride."

[. . . .]

Cassandra denigrates a hierarchy of traditional authority and, like Leda and Danaë, disrupts allegiance to a male divine. Through Cassandra, Bogan projects a furious alter ego who reverses the traditional dyad uniting women and earth, men and sky, and creates her own apotheosis as "the shrieking heaven." Cassandra purveys the voice of urgent life rather than an earth of "dumb" graves. Her role is to create the poem as prophecy: "I am the chosen no hand saves."

Bogan meets cultural violence, whether such violence denigrates its Cassandras or paralyzes its female poets, with violence of feeling and an enactment of revolt. In discussing "Cassandra," Elizabeth Frank notes that "from its hidden source poetry creates speech which is profoundly other and opposed to the received notions of men." If the myth of Daphne and Apollo serves as Bogan's voicing of crisis in the face of power, the power of patriarchal presence embodied in Apollo as law, Bogan further dramatizes the inadequacy of capitulation to cultural consensus in "Cassandra." Her reputation as a poet of austerity and reserve may obscure the innate turbulence of her vision. Yet in the oppositional sphere of her poetry, she chooses a role similar to Cassandra's, for whom "song, like a wing, tears"; through the intensity of her language Bogan would assume an aesthetics of violence and difference.

From Obsession and Release: Rereading the Poetry of Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1996 by Associated University Presses

Elizabeth Frank: On "Cassandra"

"Cassandra" is . . . an impassioned outburst by the woman who feels the terrible burden of her gift of poetic speech. The mode is emblematic or quasi-allegorical, as it had been in "Stanza" ("No longer burn the hands that seized"), as if the poem were inscribed or engraved as a motto underneath a picture of the doomed Trojan prophetess. Warning those who pursue their own destruction, Cassandra can speak only in the accents of madness, the speech of truth but not of persuasion or belief. She is cursed by clairvoyance, cut off from the ordinary lot of her sex:

[. . . .]

She is the voice of fury itself, "The shrieking heaven lifted over men, / Not the dumb earth, wherein they set their graves." Her knowledge is apocalyptic, her urgency daemonic, the symbol of that part of the psyche which drives the conscious mind to recognize truths it is reluctant to accept. For Cassandra, poetry assaults and afflicts her, setting her off from humankind and rendering her the doomed and solitary witness of "the shambling tricks of lust and pride." Thus the poem serves as evidence for what Harold Bloom was the first to say--that Louise Bogan, while "usually categorized as a poet in the metaphysical tradition or meditative mode ... is a Romantic in her rhetoric and attitudes." From its hidden source, poetry creates speech which is profoundly other and opposed to the received notions of men.

From Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1985 by Elizabeth Frank