“Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nicean 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 Are Holy Land! ” By Edgar Allan Poe To Helen” by Edgar Allan Poe is a poem about a man speaking about the beauty of a woman both in body – with the potential reference to Helen of Troy – and in spirit – comparing her to the quintessential beauty of Psyche. The beautiful woman appears in the poem to be a free spirit that reminds the storyteller of long gone times. To accentuate this reference to her ancient beauty “To Helen” employs a strong use of Greek mythology with references to both the story of Psyche and Cupid, Helen of Troy, and possible Dionysos or Bacchus within the stanza’s of the poem.
The first stanza of “To Helen” describes the beauty of Helen akin to that of a boat bringing travellers home from a long time abroad. This can be seen in the second line; “Like those Nicean barks or yore” barks being the small sailing boat and Nicean being an ancient city that was near the Trojan War. The Trojan War is one of the Western world’s most mythical battles where the Greek fleet fought against the city of Troy in a war that lasted for more than nine years. The battle began with Paris of Troy seducing Helen from her husband Menelaus the King of Sparta.
The Trojan War is one of the most important battles in Greek mythology. As the Helen in the poem is being compared, or may be, the Helen of Troy comparing her beauty to that of the woman who caused the weary travellers to become weary and home deprived to begin with due to the war their coming home from is rather ironic. However this imagery in the beginning of the poem; “Like those Nicean barks of yore / Gentle, o’er a perfumed sea,” almost immediately evoke an emotional response in the reader as it uses two rather strong emotional elements in society; war time and the joy of finally returning home.
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This is most likely the point of the imagery used in the poem and not to point out the irony of Helen of Troy’s beauty being compared to that of the aftermath of her actions of elopement with Paris of Troy. The poem then accentuates the line with a strong use of imagery; “That gently, o’er a perfumed sea, / The weary, way-worn wanderer bore / To his native shore. ” The use of “gently, o’er a perfumed sea” is a strong use of imagery that leaves a clear picture in the readers mind allowing them to easily picture the tired, “way-worn wanderer” returning home.
The description of the “weary, way-worn wanderer” in itself also drives the point home with the author’s use of alliteration. This heart warming imagery that fills the stanza is in itself a metaphor for the beauty of Helen whom is introduced in the first line of the poem. This opening stanza gives a very decisive view on the subject of the rest of the poem and leaves the reader with a clear view of the woman in their mind. On desperate seas long wont to roam,” This beginning line sets up the structure of the stanza as the nameless narrator tells the listener how, even though they’re so accustomed (“wont”) to roaming the ocean the beauty of Helen brings them back home. The middle of the stanza is dedicated to describing the beauty that brought them home whereas the actual returning to home is explained in the last two lines. Also the continuation of the ocean in the poem, “On desperate seas” is a continuation of the imagery brought about in the first stanza by reference to the “barks” or small boats.
This then brings across the imagery of the first stanza into the second stanza as the narrator identifies to the weary, way-worn wanderer. Also the identification of Helen of Troy in the poem is further enforced in the second stanza with lines such as “hyacinth hair, thy classic face” which were aspects of beauty that had a heavy weight in the ancient times of Greece and Rome. Also the mention of “To the glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome” Is a rather forward implication that all the possible connotation of Greek and Roman mythology in the poem are correct.
The line, “Thy hyacinth hair,” is not only alliteration once again but it may be referring to another Greek myth. The myth is one in which Apollo takes a lover in the form of a stunning boy called Hyacinthus who is tragically slain in his youth. This again is a metaphor of Helens exquisiteness as Hyacinthus was known for his beauty in Greek mythology. However the comparison can yet again be interpreted in two ways as, although Hyacinthus was viewed as beautiful he also died tragically and at a young age.
The poem therefore could also be referring to the fact that beauty is a tragedy as well as a gift – which can then be further supported by the fact that the beautiful woman is/being compared to Helen of Troy who singlehandedly caused the Trojan War because she fell in love. It is more plausible however that the poem is simply comparing the beauty of Helen’s hair to that of Apollo’s lover. This can be deduced as most Greek mythology has tragedy weaved throughout it anyway so any reference to beauty would result in some tragedy or another. Thy classic face, / Thy Naiad airs have brought me home” This line refers again to the archetypal beauty of woman who lived in these ancient times again provoking imagery about the beauty of the mysterious Helen the poem is depicting. “Thy Naiad airs have brought me home” this line makes reference to the Naiads who were, in both Greek and Roman mythology, minor nature goddesses often referred to as nymphs who presided over mountains, rivers or forests. The Naiad airs would therefore be referring to a peaceful breeze.
This symbolism of a Naiad airs provokes the reader to believe that the breeze is homebound and is sending the narrator towards their home. The fact that this breeze is from the narrators home is expanded upon in the last two closing lines; “To the glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that as Rome” This ties in with the previous line stating that the breeze is indeed sending the narrator towards their native shore. The descriptions given of both Greece and Rome are reminiscent of the wonders they once were and is highly symbolic of times long gone by.
The imagery of ancient and untouchable beauties is apparent throughout the entirety of the poem. The ending lines wrap up the stanza rather neatly and complete the references to the ocean that appears in the first line of the stanza. “Lo! In yon brilliant window-niche / How statue-like I see thee stand! ” This line once again opens up the stanza with a strong sense of imagery. It brings forth to the readers mind the classic silhouette of a woman against a window that is usually seen from a distance.
Although possibly this cliched vision may not have been as used back then as it is today it still would’ve provoked an easily attainable vision for the reader to hold on to for the rest of the stanza. “How statue-like I see thee stand! ” this line may be symbolic of the fact that the Greek’s had mastered the study of the human form in sculpture, sculptures that have lasted up till today and are still as stunning as they were when they were first chiselled from rock.
This stone representation of Helen is highly symbolic of timeless beauty which is a theme strongly expanded upon throughout the poem. The line contributes to the imagery of the scene and the untouchable nature of the woman silhouetted in the “brilliant window-niche” who still appears to be untouchable even though the narrator is finally home. “The agate lamp within thy hand, / Ah! Psyche, from the regions which / Are Holy Land! ” The first two lines once again have heavy connotations with Greek mythology.
The agate lamp and the mention of Psyche refers to one of the few Greek/Roman myth’s that does not end in tragedy. It is the myth of Cupid/Eros and Psyche in which Cupid is doing a favour for the goddess Aphrodite/Venus, whom is jealous of Psyche’s beauty. Aphrodite wanted Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with the ugliest man he could find however instead Cupid fell in love with Psyche. The two, through meddling parents and an oracle, end up meeting at the top of a mountain in a dark cave full of riches and finery – presumably placed there by Cupid in anticipation of Psyche’s arrival.
Psyche and Cupid then become lovers under the condition that Psyche could never see Cupids face. One night however, due to pressure from her sisters, Psyche lights a lamp – this could be the agate lamp the poem mentions – and recognizes Cupid immediately, waking him up in the process and causing him to flee. The story then goes on to show Psyche performing numerous impossible tasks for Aphrodite in order to find her lover – Cupid (Aphrodite’s son) – and be with him once again.
One of these tasks included retrieving a box from the underworld which could possibly be referenced in the second and last lines of the poem “Ah! Psyche, from the regions which / Are Holy Land! ” However Holy Land could also be referring to Greece and Rome. The reference to the myth of Psyche and Cupid in the poem is symbolic of the narrators and Helen’s love and possible it’s endurance. The connotations are that of a deeper relationship than that of admiring Helen’s beauty as their love may’ve undergone trials like the ones with which Psyche went through in order to be with Cupid.
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