All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre of the olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.

Greece sees unmoved,
God’s daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funeral cypresses.

Analysis, meaning and summary of the poem by

8 Comments

  1. MarHin says:

    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.”

  2. MarHin says:

    Hilda Doolittle
    Helen

    Lines 1-2
    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.

    Lines 3-5
    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.

    Lines 6-7
    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?

    Lines 8-11
    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.

    Lines 12-13
    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 daughter.”

    Lines 14-15
    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 longing.

    Lines 16-18
    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 instability.

  3. Rachel says:

    Thanks for helping understand more about the poem. I’m glad I found this poem, I’m thinking about reading it to my grandma. Her name is Helen too. =)

  4. anuma says:

    in the poem Helen by h.d. Helen is represented as a source of hatred by all Greece because she became the cause of war of Trojans. Her beauty is now considered as destructive because her beauty was responsible for the deaths of so many people who were killed in the war,her beauty is now lost and is reduced to ashes.

  5. mary kate says:

    lawrence’s poem helen points out the negative of the war. yes this war was incredible and fought over the beauty of a woman like helen of troy, but the war also brought about tragedy and despair, and that is what lawrence is conveying.

  6. Kyra Garwood says:

    This poem represents the hatred Greece had for Helen and the ends to which they were willing to go to get rid of her. Yet in the end once the hatred was sated they glorified her name and that she was wrongly born into a destiny she could never have percieved. Helen is human and feels as we do yet her part in what took place makes her seem almost god like in the way her story unfolds.

  7. Wayne Weiss says:

    “Helen” is a detached, analytical description of Helen of Troy, and a counterbalance to Poe’s poem “To Helen.” Poe wrote of Helen as a symbol of beauty and a representation of the classic elements of Greece and Rome that many of us admire. But we may glorify Helen and classic antiquity (Greece and Rome) to such an extent that we fail to see their shortcomings, and fail to grasp their human and institutional failures. HD is making a harsh statement: that Helen had to die and become ashes and bones in order to be glorified. Moreover, the way in which Poe represented her–as an ethereal, unhuman beauty, never really understood Helen as a human, a real person with faults and shortcomings. Consider that we in the U.S. have done the same thing with American Indians. We killed them off and stole their land, yet now have statues and museums to show how great they were. Must we kill things that are beautiful and worthy in their own right to be able to appreciate them?

  8. Tiffany says:

    This poem is written based on mythical gods. Helen was suppose to be the prettiest women and was hated. Her beauty started war and many women sought jelousy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Do you have any comments, criticism, paraphrasis or analysis of this poem that you feel would assist other visitors in understanding the meaning or the theme of this poem better? If they are accepted, they will be added to this page of American Poems. Together we can build a wealth of information, but it will take some discipline and determination.