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Where does your idea of ideal beauty come from? While today's beauty standards may come from ever-changing social media trends and celebrities, the famous American writer, Edgar Allan Poe (1809‐1849) looked to ancient Greece and Rome for his expression of ideal beauty. In his poem, 'To Helen' (1845), Edgar Allan Poe describes the overwhelming power of a woman whose beauty transcends time, transporting him back to the "glory" 1 and "grandeur" 1 of ancient civilizations.
The title of the poem is an allusion to Helen of Troy, a figure in Greek Mythology known for starting the War of Troy after being carried off by her lover Paris. This led to the start of the Trojan War. Wikimedia Commons
|'To Helen' Poem Information Overview|
|Poet:||Edgar Allan Poe (1809‐1849)|
|Type of Poem:||Lyric poem|
|Rhyme scheme:||ABABB CDCdC EFFEF|
|Literary/poetic devices:||Allusion, alliteration, simile, imagery, ecphonesis, rhyme|
|Theme:||The power of beauty|
|Meaning:||Beauty is so powerful that it can mentally transport you to another world.|
'To Helen' is a 15-line poem written by the famous American poet and short story writer, Edgar Allan Poe. 'To Helen' was originally published in 1831, and a revised version of the poem was published in 1845. The 1845 version is the one most are acquainted with and will be detailed below.
The poem was written by Poe when he was in his early twenties. It is said to be about Jane Stanard, the mother of Poe's childhood friend. Jane Stanard was a motherly figure to Edgar Allan Poe, as Poe's own mother died when he was a baby. Jane Stanard was one of the few people to encourage Poe in his writing from a young age. She died of an unspecified mental illness when Poe was only fifteen. Poe wrote this poem in remembrance of her beauty.
'To Helen' is of the lyric poetry genre. It expresses strong emotions of love and infatuation from Poe's personal perspective.
A lyric poem is a short poem with a songlike quality that expresses the strong feelings and emotions of the speaker. Lyric poetry is typically written in the first-person perspective.
'To Helen' was also inspired by the poetry of the Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Although Poe is known frequently for the dark themes in his writing, 'To Helen' exhibits characteristics of Romantic poetry. Romantic poetry is typically characterized by the expression of strong feelings and emotions, the idealization of the beauty of nature, and the focus on man as an individual.
|Line||'To Helen' by Edgar Allan Poe||Notes|
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.
|Helen: Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in Greek mythology Nicéan barks: ancient Greek Ships; of yore: of times long ago|
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.
|wont: accustomed, used to hyacinth: flowers; a Greek hero who was the lover of Apollo, the sun godNaiad: water nymph, or beautiful mythical creature|
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
|window-niche: a window-like opening agate: a decorative stone with color-banded stripes Psyche: beautiful Greek goddess whose name means soul Holy-Land: a sacred, or culturally rich place|
In the first stanza of the poem, Edgar Allan Poe alludes to Helen of Troy, whose beauty he compares to ancient Greek ships sailing gently over the sea. Poe describes how these ships bring a tired wanderer back home.
In the second stanza, Poe describes the longing for this woman's bunched, curly hair and traditionally beautiful face. He explains that her beautiful nymph-like appearance transports him to the world of traditional Greek and Roman beauty.
In the third stanza, Poe describes the woman appearing in a window with a lamp in her hand. He compares her to a classical statue of art. Poe refers to the woman as Psyche, a beautiful Greek goddess. He says that wherever she is from must be a sacred and important place.
The meaning of 'To Helen' is that beauty is powerful—so powerful that it can mentally transport you to another world. Throughout the poem, Edgar Allan Poe makes references to beautiful Greek goddesses and mythical creatures, which he uses to describe the beauty of the woman he loves. Poe references ancient Greek and Roman art and culture because these civilizations are associated with grand, classic, and romanticized beauty. Poe suggests that this woman's beauty is as striking as the idealized beauty of the goddesses seen in classical art and statutes.
Let's look at an analysis of 'To Helen' by Edgar Allan Poe through the form and rhyme scheme of the poem and his use of literary devices.
'To Helen' is comprised of three stanzas that are five lines each. The poem loosely follows iambic tetrameter and has an irregular rhyme scheme of ABABB CDCdC EFFEF (Notice that there is a set of three rhyming lines and two rhyming lines in each stanza, but the order of the rhymes is different in each stanza).
Iambic tetrameter is a line of poetry with eight syllables in an alternating pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. There are four stressed syllables per line.
Edgar Allan Poe uses a loose form of iambic tetrameter in order to suggest a loose, back and forth rhythm, which mimics the movement of waves in the sea. The stanzas are tied together by rhymes, giving the poem a musical quality.
'To Helen' uses several allusions to Greek mythology, which are essential to the analysis of the poem.
An allusion is a reference to a person, place, thing, or event that informs the understanding of a text.
The poem starts with an allusion to Helen of Troy, who is known in Greek mythology for being the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen's capture led to the start of the Trojan War. Edgar Allan Poe uses this allusion to Helen at the outset of the poem in order to suggest the universal and powerful beauty of the woman he loves. Through this allusion, Edgar Allan Poe also instantly immerses the reader in the foreign, idealized world of Greek mythology.
Helen of Troy is also known as "The face that launched a thousand ships."
Poe continues his allusions to the past in a simile saying that the woman's beauty is "Like those Nicéan barks of yore." 1 Poe takes the name of the ancient Greek city, Nicaea (which is now a part of modern-day Turkey), and turns it into an adjective describing the "barks of yore." 1 "Barks" 1 in an old Latin term for ships, and "of yore" means of times long past. Through these words, Poe emphasizes past traditions. This comparison of the woman to a ship suggests how her beauty metaphorically transports him to romanticized times of the past.
Poe uses personification in describing the sea as "perfumed." 1 This adjective suggests how life is rose-tinted or sweet-smelling due to the speaker's love for the beautiful woman.
Poe uses alliteration of the "W" sound in describing the "weary, way-worn wanderer." 1 The alliteration draws out the phrase and emphasizes the wanderer's tiredness, from which he is rescued by the ship, which represents the woman. This "weary" 1 "wanderer" 1 is also an allusion to Odysseus, a Greek king who was sent to bring Helen home in The Battle of Troy. Odysseus faces a long, difficult journey to return home. Poe uses this allusion to Odysseus in order to suggest that the beauty of a woman can guide men in their difficult journeys.
"On desperate seas long wont to roam,
The speaker describes being brought home by the woman's "hyacinth hair," 1 "classic face," 1 and "Naiad airs." 1 These are all allusions to Greek mythology, which create visual imagery to help the reader picture the woman's appearance.
Hyacinth is a plant with bunched bulbs of flowers that resemble tightly curled hair. However, Hyacinth is also the name of a Greek hero who was the lover of Apollo, the sun god. This allusion points to the beauty of the woman in that her hair resembles flowers, but also suggests her goddess-like, heroic beauty.
Poe compares the woman's hair to hyacinth flowers, which resemble the texture of bundled curls.
The term "classic face" 1 refers to the classical standards of beauty presented in the art of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Poe implies that the woman was a traditional, imposing beauty like that, idealized and immortalized in classical art.
The description "Naiad airs" 1 suggests that the woman has a mysterious and irresistible beauty similar to that of a water nymph.
In the third stanza of the poem, Edgar Allan Poe makes frequent use of ecphonesis to build an emphatic, climactic end to the poem in a way that imitates ancient Greek and Latin poetry. The use of exclamatory phrases mimics the speaker's rising emotion as he sees the woman standing in a window in the distance. He is like a sailor at sea who finally sees his love in the distance upon the shore.
Ecphonesis is a Greek word for an exclamatory phrase used for emotional, dramatic effect in poetry, song, or drama. Ecphonesis originated in ancient literature.
The final stanza is built upon an allusion to Psyche, a Greek goddess known for her beauty and for falling in love with Cupid. In the famous Greek myth, Psyche has a mysterious lover who comes to her in the night but refuses to let her see him. One night, Psyche hides a lamp in the bedroom and lights it to see Cupid while he is asleep. In Poe's poem, he refers to the woman he admires as Psyche holding a lamp like a Greek statue. This allusion indicates that the poet views the woman as his light and as an idealized beauty. Psyche is the Greek goddess of the soul, and it appears that the speaker's soul is enraptured with this woman.
Cupid is the son of Venus, the god of love. Venus, jealous of Psyche's beauty, asks Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a horrid creature. However, Cupid falls in love with Psyche instead.
'Amore e Psiche' by Antonio Canova
Art Gallery ErgsArt, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The main theme of 'To Helen' is the power of beauty. Throughout the poem, Poe uses allusions to Greek goddesses and creatures whose names are synonymous with ideal beauty. The fact that he uses mythological creatures and goddesses to describe the woman he loves, suggests that she has mysterious powers. Particularly, she has power over the speaker, as her beauty transports him to "the glory that was Greece, / And the grandeur that was Rome" 1 (Lines 9 and 10)
In the original 1831 version of the text, lines 9 and 10 read, "the beauty of fair Greece, and the grandeur of old Rome." 2 Which version of the lines do you prefer? Why do you think Edgar Allan Poe changed these lines?
1 Edgar Allan Poe, 'To Helen,' 1845.
2 Edgar Allan Poe, 'To Helen,' Poems, 1931.
The meaning of 'To Helen' is that beauty is powerful—so powerful that it can mentally transport you to another world.
The poet compares Helen's beauty with the ship because it metaphorically carries him home to feelings of comfort and joy in admiration of her beauty. Also, Helen of Troy was known as "The face that launched a thousand ships" because her capture led to the start of the Trojan War.
Poe describes the face of Helen as classic because he is comparing her to face to a piece of classical art.
The inspiration for Helen in Edgar Allan Poe's poem 'To Helen' was the mother of Poe's childhood friend, Jane Stanard. Jane Stanard was a motherly figure to Poe, as Poe's own mother died when he was a baby. Jane was one of the few people to encourage Poe in his writing from a young age. She died when Poe was only 15 from an unspecified mental illness.
The speaker uses allusions to mythology in 'To Helen' because ancient Greek and Roman civilizations are associated with grand, classic, and romanticized beauty. Poe suggests that this woman's beauty is as striking as the idealized beauty of the goddesses and creatures represented in Greek mythology and classical art.
Who is the author of the poem 'To Helen'?
Edgar Allan Poe
Who was the inspiration for the poem 'To Helen'?
Jane Stanard, the mother of one of Poe's friends.
What type of poem is 'To Helen'?
A lyric poem
Who is the name 'Helen' an allusion to in the poem 'To Helen'?
Helen of Troy
Which of the following is not an allusion to Greek mythology used in the poem?
What does the phrase "Nicéan barks of yore" mean?
Ancient Greek ships of times long ago
Why does the speaker compare the woman to a ship?
Her beauty metaphorically transports him to the world of ancient civilizations. Also, Helen of Troy is also known as "The face that launched a thousand ships."
What does the description "hyacinth hair" refer to?
The curls of the woman's hair, which resemble the bunched flowers of a hyacinth. Also, the Greek hero, Hyacinth.
Which two ancient civilizations are mentioned in the poem?
Greece and Rome
Line 11, "Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche" is an example of which literary device?
Who is Psyche?
A Greek goddess known for her beauty and for falling in love with Cupid
What does the description "Naiad airs" mean?
The woman has a mysterious, undeniable beauty like a sea nymph
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