Cassandra’s Answer by John Montague

Within ‘Cassandra’s Answer’ Montague explores themes of death, the future, and the past. The first part of the poem has a strong, frustrated tone. Through Cassandra’s voice and experiences Montague is able to create a mood that alternates between solemnity and frustration. The second half of the poem is calmer and more revelatory. The speaker investigates the truth of their life and their past while making some very important discoveries. 

 

Summary of Cassandra’s Answer

‘Cassandra’s Answer’ by John Montague uses the mythological character, Cassandra, to speak about death, loss, and perceptions of the past. 

The first part of the poem is told very clearly form the perspective of the prophet Cassandra. She originates from Greek mythology and legends say that she was cursed by the gods to tell true prophecies that would never be believed. In the poem, she expresses the frustration over her curse and how terrible it is to be mentally and physically surrounded by death. 

The second half of ‘Cassandra’s Answer’ takes on a more personal tone. The poet takes the reader into the shambles of one’s childhood home. There, they are made aware of the truth of their life and the degradation of memories and emotions. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of Cassandra’s Answer 

‘Cassandra’s Answer’ by John Montague is a two-part poem that is made up of a total of twelve stanzas. The first part is longer, containing eight stanzas, and the second has the last four. These stanzas are made up of sets of three lines, known as tercets. The tercets do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. 

Montague makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Cassandra’s Answer’. These include alliteration, caesura, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “curse, complain” in the first line of the poem and “storm,” “sailing,” “ and “street” in stanza seven. The latter is also an example of sibilance. 

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might come before an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line two of the second stanza in the first part of the poem. It reads: “Obdurate. Roots are obstructions”. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transitions between lines two and three of the third stanza of part one and lines two and three of stanza one in the second part of the poem.

 

Analysis of Cassandra’s Answer 

Part I

Stanzas One and Two

In the first stanzas of ‘Cassandra’s Answer’ the speaker, who is the much-maligned and ignored prophet Cassandra, addresses all those who didn’t listen to her. The mood is angry and frustrated. She’s exasperated at “you,” referring to a general group, who did not listen. All she can do is “curse, complain”. She told them that the flames were going to come and destroy the towns but no one did anything about it. 

She refers to those around her who refused to listen to her as “Obdurate”. They were determined not to disrupt their own understanding of the world and therefore refused to heed her warnings. 

 

Stanzas Three and Four

Cassandra is notorious within legend for speaking so convolutedly and complicatedly that no one could understand her prophecies and therefore stopped listening to them. She was made fun of and chastised for trying to intervene. In these stanzas, she expresses a desire to be loved, appreciated and praised. 

She’s tired of foretelling death, being ignored, and then seeing it happen all around her. There is a strong repetition of words beginning of “c” in the fourth stanza. It’s harsh, mimicking the pain she feels when she considers what’s been lost. 

 

Stanzas Five and Six

Cassandra expresses how her life has been transformed in the next lines of the poem because of her gift. It is more of a curse than anything else. She has only one “subject” to focus on, that of darkness and death. When she was young she used to be different, or so she thinks. It’s so far in the past and covered by so much death, that she can’t remember. Her voice which should’ve sung for joy was transformed by so many funerals. 

 

Stanzas Seven and Eight

The last lines of this section of ‘Cassandra’s Answer’ describe the coming of a new prophecy. Her whole world grows dark and her mouth heavy with a new truth. She knows that a “street will receive its viaticum,” or the Eucharist that’s given right before death. 

The eighth stanza connects the poem to Montague’s own life. “Carney” is the maiden name of his wife Molly, and “Fintona” is an area of Ireland where he was sent to live with family. 

 

Part II

Stanzas One and Two

The second part of the poem is different than the first. In these lines, a speaker describes what it’s like to revisit a childhood home after a period of time. It’s not the same as it was in your mind, in fact, it brings a bleak awareness that’s more striking than “any you have know”. The place described by Montague is falling apart. There are holes in the ceiling through which light enters—a symbol for this new awareness. 

When moving through these old spaces there are albums of memories, physical or metaphorical in nature. There are rooms that bring up “tears and loving confidences”. It’s a whole history of the past but seen through new eyes. 

 

Stanzas Three and Four

In the last two stanzas, the speaker makes larger, sweeping statements about their childhood home and what it’s like to see it fall into death and disrepair. Everything that was meaningful is “Gone as if the air has swallowed them”. The stairs rise up to nothing and the walls are stripped of anything meaningful. All that’s left is flaking stone. 

The last stanza is only one line long. It states that “you,” the one who returns their childhood home, now seeing its reality, were “born inside a skeleton”. The place that had so much meaning is revealed to be something very different. 

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