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On "Cassandra"


Elizabeth Frank

"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


Lee Upton

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 DanaŽ, 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


Mary DeShazer

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.


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