Comment 9 of 278, added on June 11th, 2010 at 5:08 PM.
To Helen, by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe's poem, "To Helen", was inspired by Sarah Helen Whitman,
the beautiful young mother of one of Poe's boyhood friends - "the first
purely ideal love of my soul," according to the poet. Or was his poetic
inspiration Jane Stith Stanard, as numerous Poe scholars argue? It makes
little difference. Since the poem exists in two versions with minor
changes, it was apparently first occasioned by his infatuation with Mrs.
Stanard and then revised for Mrs. Whitman.
The woman of the title is compared to Helen of Troy, possessor of "the face
that launched a thousand ships." That quotable quote appeared in
Christopher Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" and refers to the kidnapping by Paris
of the world's most beautiful woman, who was the wife of King Menelaus of
Sparta. That abduction was the cause of the Trojan war.
No one is sure why Poe chose to refer to those ships as "Nicean barks."
Nicea (or Nicaea) is an ancient city of Asia Minor. Probably the poet liked
the quality of remoteness associated with the place name and the vowel
music it produces in combination with "barks." Others feel he may have been
echoing Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a favorite poet of the young Poe, who in
"Youth and Age" wrote the line, "Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore."
The alliterative "weary, wayworn wanderer" refers to Odysseus (Ulysses in
Latin), who was delayed ten years on his return voyage from the Trojan War
by the adventures and misadventures recorded in Homer's Odyssey. Like the
bark of Odysseus, Poe's Helen and her beauty have transported the poet on
the sea of life.
Ever a romantic, Poe believed that classical images and allusions were the
best ways to capture the "glory" and "grandeur" of the past. His subject's
hair is "hyacinth," or the reddish-orange of zircon. The term has often
been poetically descriptive of hair since the mid-17th century. Her face is
"classic," and "Naiad airs" allude to the graceful nymphs of mythology, who
inhabited streams and lakes.
In the concluding stanza, Helen becomes a statue, and we recall the serene
facial expressions and flowing garments of ancient Greek and Roman
sculpture. The "agate lamp" in her hand connects to his mention of Psyche,
the female personification of the human soul in Greek mythology. Psyche was
forbidden to look at her beloved Cupid. One night she did so by the light
of this kind of lamp and earned his prolonged anger.
The Holy Land of the final stanza is the realm of ideal beauty removed both
by time and space from the workaday world. In sum, his poem of adoration of
a beautiful woman whom he met as an early teenager bespeaks a Platonic,
transcendent form of sexuality. It seems consonant with his marriage to
Virginia Clemm, a thirteen-year-old first cousin who died at 25 and who is
immortalized in "Annabel Lee."