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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Helen and Cassandra/Al Stewart


Two recurring figures in these pages are Al Stewart, a literate and literary songwriter, and Homer, the shadowy poet of ancient Greece who is credited with writing two of the foundational volumes of Western literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey. They intersect in Stewart's song "Helen and Cassandra," which appears as a bonus track on a 2007 reissue of his 1988 album Last Days of the Century.

Stewart focuses on the events of The Iliad  and, as Suzanne Vega did in her song Calypso, he approaches Homeric themes from the perspective of female characters. The first part of the song deals with the abduction of Helen, queen of Sparta, by Paris of Troy, the event that precipitated the Trojan War. Key figures from the epic make appearances--the warrior Achilles and Agamemnon, king of Mycenae--but the focus always returns to Helen, who is depicted as a seductress (She could have turned the head of Paris/With the gentle sway of her hips).

In the second part of the song, Stewart focuses on Cassandra, who stands in stark contrast to Helen. The god Apollo granted Cassandra the ability to see the future, but for spurning his advances he cursed her so that no one would ever believe her warnings. Stewart presents her as a tragic figure, powerless to prevent the destruction she knew was coming (Gazing at the ruined city/That your warnings could not save/Oh Cassandra, so still and so grave).

Stewart also acknowledges the author of the source material:

It's funny how the story lingers
It's probably a myth of course
A whisper in the ear of Homer
Perhaps there never was a horse

The last line is, of course, a reference to the Trojan Horse. Technically this episode does not occur in The Iliad, but is mentioned in The Odyssey.

The familiar and repeated line Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships derives from Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, published in1604 but performed much earlier. In the play Faustus, with the help of the devil, conjures up Helen of Troy and, upon seeing her, says: Is this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

For other songs that reference the works of Homer, see these previous posts.

For an additional musical reference to Homer, visit our new companion blog Classics Rock! The Sequel.