To Helen

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Grave of Jane Stanard in Shockoe Hill Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. The last stanza of "To Helen" is inscribed on the bronze marker at the base of the stone.

"To Helen" is the first of two poems to carry that name written by Edgar Allan Poe. The 15-line poem was written in honor of Jane Stanard, the mother of a childhood friend.[citation needed] It was first published in 1831 collection Poems of Edgar A. Poe. It was then reprinted in 1836 in the Southern Literary Messenger.

Analysis[edit]

In "To Helen," Poe is celebrating the nurturing power of woman.[1] Poe was inspired in part by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, particularly in the second line ("Like those Nicean barks of yore") which resembles a line in Coleridge's "Youth and Age" ("Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore").[2]

Poe revised the poem in 1845, making several improvements, most notably changing "the beauty of fair Greece, and the grandeur of old Rome" to "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome." Poe scholar Jeffrey Meyers referred to these as "two of Poe's finest and most famous lines".[3]

Allusions[edit]

Poe, in referring to Helen, may be alluding to the Greek goddess of light or Helen of Troy who is considered to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived, though there is not enough information given to determine for certain. He also makes a reference to Psyche, a beautiful princess who became the lover of Cupid. The "agate lamp" refers to the time when Psyche discovered the true identity of Cupid.

Full poem[edit]

Original 1831 version[edit]

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 !

Revised 1845 version[edit]

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore
That gently, o'er a perfumed 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 glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.

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
Are Holy Land!

In popular culture[edit]

  • This poem inspired "Banolata Sen" by 20th century Bengali poet Jibanananda Das.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kennedy, J. Gerald. "Poe, 'Ligeia,' and the problem of Dying Women" collected in New Essays on Poe's Major Tales, edited by Kenneth Silverman. Cambridge University Press, 1993: 115. ISBN 0-521-42243-4
  2. ^ Campbell, Killis. "The Origins of Poe", The Mind of Poe and Other Studies. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962: 153–154.
  3. ^ Jeffrey Meyers, "Edgar Allan Poe," in The Columbia History of American Poetry. Columbia University Press, 1993: 181.
  4. ^ Jeffrey Meyers, "Edgar Allan Poe," in The Columbia History of American Poetry. Columbia University Press, 1993: 331.