Helen Background

Helen Background

Hilda Doolittle—known professionally as H.D.—developed an identification with the figure from Greek myth and history whose faced launched a thousand ships to commence the Trojan War: Helen of Troy. So deep and profound was the evolution of this psychic connection across time and space and language that H.D. published in 1961 a long, complex epic poem titled Helen in Egypt that most critics place second only to her recognized post-World War II masterpiece Trilogy. Nearly four decades before that, however—in 1924—H.D. published a much less dense minor masterpiece titled simply “Helen.”

At eighteen lines, “Helen” is a mere fraction of the length of the more mature later work. The shorter poem is actually less about the real Helen—if, in fact, she ever existed—than about her representation through statuary. The opening line asserts that this statue of one of the most famous women in history has long been reviled by the people of Greece and that hatred expressed toward the beautiful but lifeless statue grows more as time passes. The striking whiteness of the skin of this Helen in a region of the world where olive complexions are the norm is an indication that the poem is directed not to Helen herself, but the memory of her that has become all inextricably confused to the myth. Thus, the revulsion is toward what Helen of Troy represents to the people of Greece, but one step removed from historical fact and always and forever preserved among the ancients.

For a writer whose themes would focus increasingly on gender, sexuality and male dominance in society, the meaning of the poem becomes quite clear: it is about the objectification of women into objects onto which people project their own meaning and interpretation of identity. Toss in the fact that the poet felt such a strong connection to her subject and the next great leap is also a fairly short one: “Helen” is autobiographical more than it is anything about the actual Helen of Troy. If she ever existed in the first place.

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