Helen Study Guide

Hilda Doolittle—known professionally as H.D.—developed a fascination with Greek mythology early in her career, and was known for harnessing the legends of myth to make broader statements about culture and feminism. In 1923, during her transition from the Imagist school to a more expansive style, she published the powerful poem "Helen," which examines difficult truths about society's relationship to women.

At eighteen lines, “Helen” is a fraction of the length of her later work, but the poem is dense in its exploration of culture, feminism, and the human psyche. The title "Helen" refers to Helen of Troy from Greek mythology, whose kidnapping by Paris of Troy from King Menelaus of Sparta sparked the Trojan War. Since the time of ancient Greece, tales of Helen's exquisite beauty have spread across the globe and her story widely admired. Thus, Helen became idolized as an icon, or a representation of the romantic and aesthetic ideals of the time. This idolatry has resulted in her objectification as the pinnacle of sexual conquest, a position that H.D. has depicted as a raw deal for women and the bulwark of patriarchy. As Helen's symbolism in the Greek psyche transcended life and bled into the perpetuity of myth, her figure experienced the fundamental dehumanization that so many women experience at the hands of culture.

Helen was an important figure for H.D., especially given the emotional connection to her own mother, who was also named Helen. The critic Susan Friedman writes in Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. that in the poem, "the poet cannot free Helen from the patriarchal cage of traditional hate and adoration. She stands outside the process, helpless to prevent Helen's growing silence and paralysis. She can and does attack tradition, but she cannot give the mute statue a voice." This struggle to empower Helen as a gesture toward empowering other women lasted the rest of H.D.'s life. At the very end of her career, she would pen the much longer masterpiece "Helen in Egypt" (1961), also about Helen of Troy, which many critics regard as second only to her book of three collections, Trilogy, published right after WWII.