The first version of ‘To Helen’ was published in 1831 in Poe’s volume, Poems. It was reprinted and revised over the next few years until 1845 when he got to the version that most readers know today. Generally, it is thought that this poem was written with a specific woman in mind, the mother of one of his childhood friends. As a young man, Poe became infatuated with her. She provided him with one of the first dependable older, female presences in his young life.
To Helen Edgar Allan Poe Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nicéan 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!
The speaker compares the mother of a close friend, Jane Stanard, to Helen throughout the three stanzas of ‘To Helen’. He speaks of her beauty and compares her to various figures from mythology. She is a guiding light to a weary traveling, the embodiment of the glory of Greece, and the home that all travelers are trying to get back to.
‘To Helen’ by Edgar Allan Poe is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines. The first stanza follows a rhyme scheme of ABABB, the second CDCDC, and the third: EFFEF. There are also examples of half-rhyme in this pattern. For instance, the two “D” rhymes in the second stanza, “face” and “Greece”. Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse.
Poe also chose to structure this piece in iambic pentameter. This means that each line is made up of five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed.
Poe makes use of several literary devices in ‘To Helen’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, allusion, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “weary, way-worn wanderer” in stanza one and “hyacinth hair” in stanza two.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. There are several allusions in this piece. All of them are related in some way to Greek/Roman mythology, something that Poe was fond of. A close reader can find intertwined in this poem the story of Psyche and Cupid as well as that of Helen and Paris.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and three and four of the second.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
In the first lines of ‘To Helen,’ the speaker makes it clear that the “Helen” he is talking about is really a metaphor. Poe’s dedication to Jane Stanard, the mother of one of his friends, is symbolized through the universal admiration that follows Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. By referring to her as “Helen” rather than Jane he is guaranteeing that all readers will know immediately of her importance to him.
The first two lines of the poem also contain a simile. He is comparing the woman’s beauty to the old ships from Nicaea, an important ancient city (now named Iznik) on the west coast of Turkey.
These ships of old carried passengers gently “o’er” or over, ( an example of syncope) the sea. Specifically, the speaker refers to a “weary, way-worn wanderer”. Helen’s beauty is like the relief and appreciation that this wanderer would feel for the ship that bore him away from his struggles to his home. There are at least two allusions that scholars generally associate with these lines. First, Poe is thinking of the Catullus, a Latin poet who Poe studied. Secondly, these lines refer to Odysseus and his prolonged journey home from the Trojan war.
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.
In the second stanza of ‘To Helen,’ the poet uses several more references to Greek and Roman mythology. He is romanticizing the past, painting it in a light that makes it seem more beautiful and ideal than it likely was. He compares the beauty of Helen in these lines to the “glory that was Greece” and the “grandeur that was Rome”. Her beauty, which has guided the wanderer (or the poet himself) through the roaming seas, has brought him “home”. Her hair and face were the guides.
Poe also compares her in these lines to a “Naiad,” or a beautiful, magical, although not divine, being that lives near a specific body of water.
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
In the third and final stanza of ‘To Helen’ the speaker begins with an exclamation. He draws the reader’s attention to a “brilliant window-niche” where he can see Helen stand. She’s as still as a statue, holding an “agate lamp” in her hand. This is a kind of stone through which light is reflected. She embodies light and warmth, providing him with a destination to aim for. He’s astonished by her beauty at this moment.
In the last two lines, he speaks about “Psyche,” a beautiful mortal woman who was shot with one of cupid’s arrows and made to fall in love with a bull. The speaker is clearly in love with this woman, therefore he is casting himself as another character in this story, cupid. She is from the “regions which / Are Holy-Land”. She’s divine, originating from another world that he can get close to but can’t reach.