In a legend of ancient Greece, the prophetess Cassandra was cursed by the god Apollo because she wouldn’t “sleep” with him. The curse rendered the people unable to believe her prophecies. In his poem Cassandra (SP 579), Robinson Jeffers argues that the curse was toothless, seeing that “men hate the truth”: they wouldn’t have listened to Cassandra without the curse, because as a genuine prophet her words were true.
Cassandra has long been one of my favorite Jeffers poems, though my affection for it has been tempered by the realization that the poem’s assertion that “poets honey their truth with lying,” can be applied to Jeffers, for all the self-mythologizing he did as well as his incessant efforts to mold his world to his views. For this reason, Cassandra plays its own part in the myth-making by asserting that Jeffers was an uncompromising truth-teller.
That said, Cassandra remains true in spite of (and in light of) the apparent hypocrisy of its author. The craft of the poem is quite impressive, for the “mad girl” seems rather hawk-like, and as such is rather Jeffers-like. Her eyes stare. Her mouth screeches. Her fingers are long and hook-like.
One aside: did Jeffers really have to use the word “liefer?” This wasn’t the only time he used the word. He used it in At the Fall of an Age and The Inhumanist. He even put it in the mouth of a rancher in Give Your Heart to the Hawks—and Mara! Perhaps this is a sign of just how cloistered Jeffers was throughout his life. Or do cowboys actually like to use the word?
When Jeffers wrote “the poets honey their truth with lying,” he may not have intended for it to apply to him as well, but it does nonetheless. Since Cassandra must be the best example of a Jeffers poem about truth (and lies), we should perhaps go into detail.
Jeffers based his vow to “not tell lies in verse” on Nietzsche:
Another formative principle came to me from a phrase of Nietzsche’s: “The poets? The poets lie too much.” I was nineteen when the phrase stuck in my mind; a dozen years passed before it worked effectively, and I decided not to tell lies in verse.
— The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Forward (1938)
But Nietzsche’s statement in this regard was nuanced. Here is some of what Nietzsche had to say about poets in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Chapter 39), from the mouth of Zarathustra himself, the poet-prophet whom Nietzsche regarded as the great icon of all truth tellers. The passage begins with a recollection of one of Zarathustra’s disciples:
‘I heard you say that once before,’ answered the disciple; ‘and at that time you added: “But the poets lie too much.” Why then did you say that the poets lie too much?’ …
Zarathustra acknowledges the statement without admitting to being fully truthful himself:
‘So what did Zarathustra once say to you? That the poets lie too much?—But Zarathustra too is a poet.’
‘Now do you believe that he was telling the truth here? Why do you believe that?’
The disciple answered: ‘I believe in Zarathustra.’ But Zarathustra shook his head and smiled.
‘Belief does not make me blessed.’ he said, ‘least of all belief in me.
‘But given that someone said in all seriousness that the poets lie too much: well he is right. we do lie too much. …’
Did Jeffers ever tell lies in verse? He did, though he was generally inclined to be brutally frank. The poem Carmel Point is probably his best example of lies told in verse (see our discussion on that poem). Aside from that, Jeffers did bend the truth about his role in the construction of Tor House in several poems (Apology for Bad Dreams , Tor House , and Salvage ). There is also cause for doubt as to whether the red-tailed hawk featured in the poem Hurt Hawks was actually a “redtail.”
It should be crystal-clear that none of this questioning of Jeffers’ honesty threatens to devaluate this poem. The poem remains true, even as Jeffers happened to tell occasional lies in verse. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “Jeffers too was a poet.”
The text of Cassandra is available online, but often miscopied. Look out for the word “kind” at the end of line 9. It should be “kindly.”
Cassandra has been included only in Jeffers-exclusive anthologies:
- The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers, 2003; ed. Albert Gelpi
- The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford, 2001; ed. Tim Hunt
- Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems, Vintage Books, 1965