A summary of a classic Poe poem
‘To Helen’ is one of the most popular poems by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49). It still regularly appears in some of the best poetry anthologies – though, confusingly, Poe went on to write another poem with the same title. The ‘To Helen’ we reproduce below is, however, the famous and celebrated one. It was first published in 1831 in Poems of Edgar A. Poe, which appeared when Poe was still in his early twenties, although Poe made a few tweaks to the poem in 1845 – it is the final version that appears below. In this post, we offer some notes towards an analysis of ‘To Helen’ in terms of its form, metre, language, and meaning.
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand,
The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
A brief summary of ‘To Helen’ first, then. In this poem, as the title suggests, Poe addresses Helen – by whom he means Helen of Troy, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the classical world. She was the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’, in Christopher Marlowe’s famous line about her from his play Doctor Faustus. (In honour of this, the hypothetical unit of measurement, the ‘milliHelen’, has been proposed as the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship. There’s something to love about this.)
Helen’s beauty, Poe tells us in the first stanza, reminds him of the boats (‘barks’) of classical times, specifically those boats which set sail for victory (‘Nicéan’ has been interpreted by critics as a nod to Nike, the Greek god of victory; these boats, then, may be the very ships that were launched to fight the Trojan war). The ‘weary, way-worn wanderer’, a delicious piece of alliteration, may refer to Odysseus, who, after the Trojan war was over, made the long and eventful journey home to his ‘native shore’. (This is, of course, where we get the word ‘odyssey’ from.) Or it may refer to any such wanderer travelling across the oceans in classical times.
In the second stanza, Poe likens himself to the wanderer returning home: Helen’s ‘hyacinth hair’ (Hyacinth provides another classical reference: he was a youth beloved by Apollo) has been interpreted as being black, based on Poe’s reference, in his story ‘Ligeia’, to black hair as ‘hyacinthine’. Her ‘classic face’ reinforces the sense of her classical beauty. The ‘Naiad airs’ suggests that Helen is nymph-like, ethereal: she has the ‘airs’ and mannerisms of a sea-dwelling nymph. The fact that Helen’s beauty has ‘brought [Poe] home’ to Greece and Rome suggests not only that he has been reminded of the magic and beauty of classical civilisation but that he recognises it as the cradle of all Western civilisation. We certainly analyse it in this way. After all, tragedy, comedy, philosophy, and much else were either invented, or perfected and named, by the ancient Greeks.
In the poem’s final stanza, Poe likens Helen to a statue – again, a symbol of classical beauty – as he views her standing in the alcove of a window with an ‘agate lamp’ (agate is a crystalline rock). The word ‘brilliant’ (literally meaning shining bright) and the ‘agate lamp’ in Helen’s hand both reinforce the literal meaning of her name: ‘bright’. But the agate lamp is also another classical allusion: it was Psyche, personification of the soul, who carried such a lamp. She awakened the sleeping Cupid, god of love, when a drop of oil from her lamp fell on him as he slept. It is as though Helen has awakened Poe’s appreciation of beauty, but also – like the wakened Cupid – his capacity for love. Poe’s final reference to Greece as the ‘Holy Land’ reclaims the title from its Crusading connotations, where it referred to Jerusalem. The true ‘Holy Land’ for Poe is the original seat of Western art and poetry, and Helen reignites his love of such things.
Indeed, Poe reminds us that Western poetry itself really begins not only in ancient Greece, but with a story about the Trojan war – namely, Homer’s epic poem the Iliad, which focuses on the last few days in the conflict, a conflict that began when the Greek Helen was abducted by Paris, the Prince of Troy.
But as well as such universal resonances, ‘To Helen’ also has more personal links to Edgar Allan Poe’s own life, and indeed the poem has been analysed in terms of its biographical associations. Jane Stanard, the mother of one of Poe’s childhood friends, had been the first person to encourage Poe in his writing ambitions, at a time when Poe’s foster-father thought he should be doing other things. ‘To Helen’ was one of the first poems Poe wrote, and he wrote it for her. Poe was most likely only a teenager when he wrote ‘To Helen’. If only we could all be so deft with a pen at such a young age!
Image: W.S. Hartshorn daguerreotype of Poe (1848), public domain.