Poe's Poetry Summary and Analysis

"To Helen" (1831)

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Summary:

The narrator praises Helen for her beauty, which he compares to a ship bringing a "weary, wayworn wanderer" to his home. Her classic beauty has reminded him of ancient times, and he watches her stand like a statue while holding a stone lamp.

Analysis:

In "To Helen," first published in 1831 and revised in later years, Poe displays an early interest in the theme of female beauty to which his later works often return. He wrote this poem in honor of Jane Stith Stanard, the mother of his childhood friend Rob, although he later wrote a different, longer poem of the same name to Sarah Helen Whitman. Jane Stanard had recently died, and, through his writing, Poe sought to thank her for acting as a second mother to him. The Helen of the 1831 poem embodies a classic beauty and poise, and by using Jane Stanard as the inspiration, Poe celebrated the latter woman as one of his earliest loves.

Although Poe never explained why he changed Jane Stanard's name to Helen in the poem, one possible interpretation is that he intended to connect her to the famed Helen of Troy, who sparked the Trojan War of Homer's Iliad because of her beauty. The remainder of the poem shows a definite classical influence, with Poe's elevated diction and his direct references to "the glory that was Greece" and "the grandeur that was Rome." He also praises Helen's beauty by describing her "hyacinth hair" and "classic face," details that are associated with ancient standards of the female ideal. If Poe indeed intended for the name "Helen" to refer to Helen of Troy, then he has given his character high praise indeed.

Along with the ambiguity of Helen's name, the identity of the narrator is also in question, as he does not have a name or much of a physical presence. He refers to himself as the alliterative "weary, wayworn wanderer" who has returned home, drawn to Helen's alluring and comforting hearth. Poe may have intended the narrator to be a direct reflection of himself, who as a boy felt more welcome in Jane Stanard's house than in other environments. At the same time, he may have sought to depict the narrator as an archetypal man, who like all other men found a nurturing source in a woman's home. Otherwise, the narrator might be akin to a victorious Greek warrior who, like Homer's Odysseus, has returned from some struggle overseas.

The role of the female in "To Helen" is multifaceted. In one sense, Helen guards the home hearth in the traditional domestic role of caregiver while displaying a faithful attachment that recalls the idealized love of Annabel Lee in Poe's eponymous 1849 poem. Simultaneously, Helen is the protagonist's guide and inspiration who brings him back from the lonely seas, and her depiction as "statue-like" with an "agate lamp" characterizes her as steadfast and dependable. Finally, there are mentions of Naiads, or ancient Greek water nymphs, and Psyche, the mythological woman who represents the soul and who marries Eros, the god of love. These twin allusions emphasize the concordance between Helen's outer and inner beauty.

As is typical with many of Poe's poems, the rhythm and rhyme scheme of "To Helen" is irregular but musical in sound. The poem consists of three stanzas of five lines each, where the end rhyme of the first stanza is ABABB, that of the second is ABABA, and that of the third is ABBAB. Poe uses soothing, positive words and rhythms to create a fitting tone and atmosphere for the poem. His concluding image is that of light, with a "brilliant window niche" and the agate lamp suggesting the glowing of the "Holy Land," for which Helen is the beacon.