Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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 version.
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
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
of the Poem
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.
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
thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
The weary, wayworn wanderer bore
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 Menelaus.
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
desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
the grandeur that was Rome.
wont: Accustomed to
(usually followed by an infinitive, such as to roam in the first
line of this stanza).
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
in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand,
The agate lamp within thy hand!
Psyche, from the regions which
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
the regions which are Holy Land: From ancient Greece and Rome; from
the memory Poe had of Mrs. Stanard (Background).
meter consists mainly of trimeters and tetrameters, with a dimeter at the
end. Following are examples.
2, iambic tetrameter)
3, iambic tetrameter)
5, iambic trimeter)
9, trimeter with anapest and an iamb)
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
also known as near rhyme, oblique rhyme, and slant rhyme.
Second stanza, cdcdc
Third stanza, effef
The poem also contains internal
rhyme. Here are examples:
Helen, thy beauty
is to me (line
o'er a perfumed
The weary, wayworn
wanderer bore (line
On desperate seas long wont
Figures of Speech
are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures
of speech, see Literary Terms.
(lines 9 and 10)
hyacinth hair, thy
Naiad airs 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.)
thy beauty is to
those Nicéan barks of yore (lines 1-2)
Comparison of Helen's
beauty Nicéan barks
in yon brilliant window-niche
statue-like I see thee stand (lines 11-11)
Comparison of the stance
of Helen to that of a statue
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.
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.
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
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
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.