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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised in 2011.©
Type of Work
......."To Helen" is a lyric poem extolling the beauty of a woman. Poe wrote the poem in 1831 and later revised it. The Southern Literary Messenger published it in March 1836 and Graham's Magazine in September 1841. The text on this page is the 1841
.......Edgar Allan Poe wrote “To Helen” as a reflection on the beauty of Mrs. Jane Stith Stanard, of Richmond, Va., who died in 1824. She was the mother of one of Poe’s school classmates, Robert Stanard. When Robert invited Edgar, then 14, to his home (at 19th and East Grace Streets in Richmond) in 1823, Poe was greatly
taken with the 27-year-old woman, who is said to have urged him to write poetry. He was later to write that she was his first real love.
.......The theme of this short poem is the beauty of a woman with whom Poe became acquainted when he was 14. Apparently she treated him kindly and may have urged him—or perhaps inspired him—to write poetry. Beauty, as Poe uses the word in the poem, appears
to refer to the woman's soul as well as her body. On the one hand, he represents her as Helen of Troy—the quintessence of physical beauty—at the beginning of the poem. On the other, he represents her as Psyche—the quintessence of soulful beauty—at the end of the poem. In Greek,
psyche means soul. For further information on Helen of Troy and Psyche, see the comments on the text of the poem.
Summary of the Poem
.......Poe opens the poem with a simile—“Helen, thy beauty is to me / Like those Nicéan barks of yore”—that compares the beauty of Helen (Mrs. Stanard, Background) with small sailing boats (barks) that carried home travelers in ancient
times. He extends this boat imagery into the second stanza, when he says Helen brought him home to the shores of the greatest civilizations of antiquity, classical Greece and Rome. It may well have been that Mrs. Stanard’s beauty and other admirable qualities, as well as her taking notice of Poe’s writing ability, helped inspire him to write poetry that mimicked in some ways the classical
tradition of Greece and Rome. Certainly the poem’s allusions to mythology and the classical age suggest that he had a grounding in, and a fondness for, ancient history and literature.
.......In the final stanza of the poem, Poe imagines that Mrs. Stanard
(Helen) is standing before him in a recess or alcove in front of a window. She is holding an agate lamp, as the beautiful Psyche did when she discovered the identity of Eros (Cupid). For further information on the agate lamp, Psyche, and Eros, see the comments opposite the third stanza (below).
By Edgar Allan Poe
Text With Explanatory Notes
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
The weary, wayworn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
Helen: An allusion to Helen of Troy in Greek mythology. Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Greece, was the most beautiful woman in the world. After a Trojan prince named Paris abducted her, the Greeks declared war on the Trojans, fighting a 10-year battle that ended in victory and the restoration of Greek honor. Helen returned to Greece with
Nicéan: Of or from Nicea (also spelled Nicaea), a city in ancient Bithynia (now part of present-day Turkey) near the site of the Trojan War.
barks: Small sailing vessels.
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.
wont: Accustomed to (usually followed by an infinitive, such as to roam in the first line of this stanza).
Naiad: Naiads were minor nature goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology. They inhabited
and presided over rivers, lakes, streams, and fountains.
Naiad airs: Peaceful, gentle breezes or qualities
the glory that . . .Rome: These last two lines, beginning with
the glory that was, are among the most frequently quoted lines in world literature. Writers and speakers quote these lines to evoke the splendor of classical antiquity. The alliteration of glory, Greece, and grandeur helps to make the lines memorable.
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand,
The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah! Psyche, from the
agate: A variety of chalcedony (kal SED uh ne), a semiprecious translucent stone with colored stripes or bands. The marbles that children shoot with a flick of the thumb are usually made of agate (although some imitations are made of glass).
agate lamp: Burning lamp made of agate.
Psyche: In Greek and Roman mythology, Psyche was a beautiful princess dear to the god of love, Eros (Cupid), who would visit her in a darkened room in a palace. One night she used an agate lamp to discover his identity. Later, at the
urging of Eros, Zeus gave her the gift of immortality. Eros then married her.
from the regions which are Holy Land: From ancient Greece and Rome; from the memory Poe had of Mrs. Stanard (Background).
The meter consists mainly of trimeters and tetrameters, with a dimeter at the end. Following are examples.
Like THOSE..|..Ni CÉ..|..an
BARKS..|..of YORE............(line 2, iambic tetrameter)
That GENT..|..ly, O'ER..|..a
PER..|..fumed SEA.............(line 3, iambic tetrameter)
HIS..|..own NA..|..tive SHORE.................................(line 5, iambic
To the GLOR..|..y THAT..|..was GREECE.....................(line 9, trimeter
with anapest and an iamb)
Are HO..|..ly- LAND....................................................(line 15, iambic dimeter)
The end rhyme of the poem is as follows:
First stanza, ababb Note that face and Greece (lnes 7 and 9) are similar only in that they have one syllable and the same ending, -ce. The vowels a and ee do not rhyme. Thus, face and Greece make up what is called half-rhyme, also known as near rhyme, oblique rhyme, and slant
Second stanza, cdcdc
Third stanza, effef
The poem also contains internal rhyme. Here are examples:
Helen, thy beauty is to me (line 1) .
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea (line 3)
The weary, wayworn wanderer bore (line 4)
On desperate seas long wont to roam (line 6)
Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
The weary, wayworn wanderer bore (line
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome. (lines 9 and 10)
Thyhyacinth hair, thyclassic face, Personification
have brought me home (lines 7-8)
On desperate seas long wont to roam (line 6)
Comparison of the seas to a human. (Wont implies a conscious decision.)
Helen, thy beauty is to me Biogragphy
Like those Nicéan barks of yore (lines 1-2)
Comparison of Helen's beauty Nicéan barks
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand (lines 11-11)
Comparison of the stance of Helen to that of a statue
.......Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple—John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with
the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. .
.......After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school.
After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame.
.......Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the
deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
- Poe writes often about beauty. He and other writers use beautiful to describe women, flowers, babies, landscapes, sunsets, homes, and so on. Write an essay that attempts to define beauty. Use library research and the Internet. Include quotations from poetry.
- Briefly explain why Poe uses glory in reference to ancient Greece and grandeur in reference to ancient Rome.
- Poe compares Helen to Psyche, beloved of Eros (Cupid) in ancient mythology. Write an essay informing your readers about the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
- Do archaic or quaint words such a thy, thee, lo, and yon enhance the effect of the poem? Explain your answer.