William Butler Yeats, “No Second Troy” / Sinead O’Connor, “Troy”

maud gonne

Part Two: this one dates back to my teen years.

Even if I had tried, I wouldn’t have been able to keep track of the times I listened to Sinead O’Connor’s debut album “The Lion and The Cobra,” first on vinyl and then on CD. I loved nearly every track on that album, but “Troy” was one of my favorites. It ran well over six minutes long and it really did feel epic (long before that word became overused) — it had highs and lows of volume and emotion.

Here are the lyrics to the first verse:

I’ll remember it
Dublin in a rainstorm
Sitting in the long grass in summer, keeping warm
I’ll remember it
Every restless night
We were so young then
We thought that everything we could possibly do was right
Then we moved
Stolen from our very eyes
And I wondered where you went to
Tell me when did the light die
You will rise
You’ll return
The phoenix from the flame
You will learn
You will rise
You’ll return
Being what you are
There is no other Troy
For you to burn

And here’s a video of O’Connor performing an acoustic version of “Troy” in 1988:

Later in the song, she inverts those lyrics:

I’ll die
But I will rise
And I will return
The phoenix from the flame
I have learned
I will rise
And you’ll see me return
Being what I am
There is no other Troy
For me to burn

I don’t remember whether or not the album’s liner notes actually mentioned this, but the obvious source for those lines (including the fire imagery) was W. B. Yeats’s “No Second Troy,” published in 1916. I do remember reading this poem in high school, not long before I heard O’Connor’s song.

It’s one of Yeat’s tributes to his longtime love Maud Gonne, the actress-turned-revolutionary who fought for the Irish nationalist cause and for women’s rights, and it refers back to Greek myth and tales of the Trojan War.

Here’s the text:

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?

Was there another Troy for her to burn?

I always thought of O’Connor’s “Troy” as the ultimate tragic-romance song, but BBC DJ Stuart Bailie recalls interviewing O’Connor in the late 80s and tells us that it was the artist’s response to her own troubled family life, particularly her mother’s mental illness and early death. (I almost wish I hadn’t learned that. In any case, it opens up the lyrics to multiple interpretations.)

Much of “The Lion and The Cobra” was an ingenious blend of musical and literary influences that ended up sounding like nothing but O’Connor herself. (We could say a lot about the singer and her later career, but we won’t…not here, anyway.)

After 1988, O’Connor didn’t perform “Troy” again until 2008. Here’s the video:

Top image: Maud Gonne via Wikipedia.
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