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Comment 9 of 77, 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."
Comment 8 of 77, added on June 11th, 2010 at 4:28 AM.
The poem has an unexpected beginning. Here Greek statuary engenders hate
instead of awe or adoration; the still eyes and white face represents that
which deserves hate, not the visage of otherworldly tranquility. Helen
draws this hate because she is blamed for starting the Trojan War (c. 1200
B.C.), a war begun when she eloped to Troy with the handsome youth Paris.
But the Greece H.D. is talking about is one in which Helen has long been
dead, a place where Helen lives on only in myth and in a monument H.D.
seems to have sculpted out of words for her.
Helen’s face has the luster of olives, a product of Greece and famously
identified with it. The fact that it is not olive-colored skin, but skin as
smooth as olives — skin showing like olives “where she stands” — indicates
further that the subject of this poem is not a living Helen, but a
classical statue of her. While Greek statues were once painted, almost all
have come down to us with the color worn off by time. H.D. seems to
understand this white as a purification of Helen’s image through time, a
purity that the Greeks, however, are all the more angered by.
This is a smiling statue of Helen, an insult to the Greeks reviling her.
Yet the face is sickly, or wan. Which is it? Can it be that Helen is
simultaneously both happy and gloomy?
Greece apparently hates the statue of Helen the more it ages, the purer it
looks, because Greeks remember how so many died to have her or rescue her.
The unmoving statue of Helen mimics what to Greeks (according to H.D.) was
Helen’s nature: cold and unmoved. Here Helen is a pure object, an object of
desire that lacks desire. Helen was the daughter of Zeus and, thus, “God’s
From color (wan and white), H.D. moves to Helen’s temperature, her
coolness. Again, the statue of Helen is an object absent of the warmth of
desire or emotion — a fitting representation of a woman thought to possess
the wan, white coolness of the statue. Helen’s feet and “slenderest knees”
point to Helen’s beauty, not only to the usual foci of female beauty, but
to the unusual; Helen is so perfect that even her feet and knees provoke
The last three lines indicate that Greece cannot love Helen as a statue,
for her beauty only galls. Even after death and in effigy, the beautiful
statue of beautiful Helen provokes desire and anger among viewers. Are the
viewers who want to see Helen’s monument turned into a pile of ashes both
men and women? Or do only men curse the beauty of the femme fatale who,
they think, leads them to their doom? Perhaps women, as well as men, hate
Helen for setting the standards of beauty too high — for being the object
of so much desire. If so, the pure white beauty of Helen must be reduced to
pure white ashes scattered among cypresses, symbols of life after death
and, therefore, planted in graveyards. The paradox is that Helen cannot be
loved in remembrance unless dead and gone from sight. But lost from sight,
it would also be impossible to love her. Helen stands in an impossible
position — the point where hate equals love, a position trembling with
MarHin from Egypt
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