There be dragons!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

To Helen Analysis

This is the poem by E.A. Poe:

To Helen
by Edgar Allan Poe

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfum'd 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 beauty of fair Greece,
And the grandeur of old Rome.

Lo ! in that little window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand!
The folded scroll within thy hand —
A Psyche from the regions which
Are Holy land !

Stanza 1

The Helen of the poem is an immediate reference to Mrs. Stanard but a proximate reference to Helen of Troy. This is problematic since Helen is responsible for the death of thousands - "the face that launched a thousand ships". In the second line the poet notes that it is not Helen who is like the bark but "her beauty". Thus the inspiration/longing/eros that this woman has invoked in him is the salvific element, the bark (and Nicean - which alludes to the historical power near Troy that carried the Byzantine Empire through the early 13th century and would later be the site where the Creed that defined the Church was crafted. The name itself means victory, Nike in Greek) that carries the speaker "the weary way-worn wanderer" (an alliterative series of w's that puff out the mouth in an expulsion of air much like a spent runner) out of the element of chaos, the sea, back to his home - his sense of self. Immediately this raises the question of eros; is it a force that leads us to the beautiful or a destructive power that prompts annihilation or perhaps both? Are we to be subsumed by our very love of beauty into a loss of self, obliteration of identity in love; or are we to find our proper place in the universe - our home? The wanderer and the reference to home immediately call up the epic work of Homer in which Odysseus, guided by the remembered love of his wife, Penelope, struggles to reach his home. Is Penelope like the guiding bark? Or is she Eros? The ocean over which the speaker travels is chaos but also the element of the feminine; confirmed by the fact that it is "perfum'd". Is the first stanza suggesting that the salvific beauty of Helen guides him past the chaos offered by illicit unions with other women to find a true love in her? Is she, or her beauty, native to him - a second self, as Aristotle said?

No comments:

Post a Comment