By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
Background Notes Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..© 2005
Date of Publication 1831 in a book of poems.
Theme 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.
Imagery and 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).
Poe Books and Videos at Amazon.com
By Edgar Allan Poe
Complete Text With Annotation by Michael J. Cummings