Robert Zallar

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.

Robert Zallar: On "The Purse- Seine"

 Progress, in its final incarnation, was the rationalization of pleasure, the pursuit of gratification by material means, and that pursuit in turn was the expression of a despair so profound it could be felt only as a longing for death. Divorced materially, intellectually, and spiritually from the natural world, modern man was enclosed in the artifice of his cities, whose lights against the night sky resembled nothing so much as the glitter of scales in a fishnet: . . . .

The "net" of the city, like the purse seine, scoops men up from their native element; it jostles them together so that none can stand alone yet none are truly linked; its glow is the shimmer of decay. Jeffers had deployed the image of the net previously to describe the consequences of a culture built upon narcissism, most notably in "The Tower Beyond Tragedy": "the net of desire / Had every nerve drawn to the center, so that they writhed like a full draught of fishes, all matted / In the one mesh." Urbanization was the outer symptom, the public manifestation of this collapse upon the self. The tightening web of community created isolation within dependence, enlarging the sense of self while destroying the scope of free activity, as narcissism and anomie reinforced each other in a self-perpetuating cycle.

Robert Zallar: On "Hurt Hawks"

The portrayal of freedom thus presented a formidable challenge. To capture its elusive and dialectical character, to make it comprehensible not only to his own but to a later time, Jeffers had to find a formulation independent of the vagaries of historical fortune. He did so by juxtaposing man's situational freedom as a moral agent in the world with the unconditioned freedom suggested by certain aspects of natural process. In Jeffers' poetry birds of prey, particularly the hawk and the eagle, came to serve as emblems of such unconditioned freedom. Jeffers did not of course imply that such predators were free in any supervenient sense. Rather, they symbolized the original ontological freedom to which man aspired but could never (as agent) return, thus providing both an imaginative fulfillment and a wry measure of human limitation. "Hurt Hawks," one of Jeffers' most admired poems, ably illustrates the complexities of this interaction. In it the poet, like Michal in "Cawdor," attempts to nurse a crippled hawk:


We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,

He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening,

    asking for death,


The inherent falsity of the poet's position is summed up in the presumption of I gave him freedomas if anyone could "give" freedom and as if -- of all donors and all recipients - a man could give freedom to a hawk. The poet finally understands his obligation and acts upon it. Yet something more is performed than a service, something more accomplished than mere reparation. The "gift" of instantaneous death is not that it is merciful but that it releases, at least in the poet's imagination, the "fierce rush" of the bird's essential freedom, abstracted from condition and circumstance. The recipient of this gift is of course the poet himself, who in this sense is "given" his freedom, or a privileged glimpse of it; but the bond of a true relationship is suggested in the poem's exalted close, the genuineness of an exchange.