‘Helen’ by H.D. is a three-stanza poem that describes the emotions of the Greek people in regards to Helen of Troy. The first stanza contains five lines, the second six, and the third, seven. This escalation of line numbers builds up tension as the poem increases until the climax occurs in the last three. Each stanza of the poem contains its own separate, loosely structured rhyme scheme.
Summary of Helen
The poem begins with the speaker stating that hate is the overwhelming feeling that the Greeks feel for this one woman. They are not capable of experiencing any sort of empathy or understanding of her situation and the impossible non-choices that she faced. The greeks hate everything that she is, from how she looks to how she stands.
Not only do they feel disdain for her appearance, but they also hate the fact that she is, or ever has been happy. They want her to feel nothing at all. In the last stanza, the reader finds out the one way that their hate might be relieved.
This woman, who has been passed around her whole life and sold for her beauty, was born of a God, and was adored for it. All that has now passed and due to her own independent choices, the only way she might not be hated quite so completely is if she was dead.
You can read the full poem Helen here.
The Story of Helen
In legend, it is said that Helen of Sparta, later Helen of Troy, was the most beautiful woman in Greece. Her parentage is fluid. Sometimes she is said to be the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and sometimes Zeus and Nemesis.
When it was time for her to get married suitors came from all over Greece. From among all of these men, Helen’s father chose King Menelaus of Sparta, the younger brother of King Agamemnon of Mycenae. When she got the chance Helen fled from Sparta to Troy where she married one of the sons of King Priam, Paris.
This betrayal began the Trojan War in which the Greeks unified against the city in an effort to decimate it and kill or retrieve Helen. The siege on the city lasted for 10 years and is detailed in Homer’s Iliad.
Analysis of Helen
All Greece hates(…)and the white hands.
Throughout this piece, the speaker will describe the all encompassing hatred that the Greek people felt for Helen of Troy. To read more about her story, see “The Story of Helen” above.
She begins by stating outright that “All Greece hates” Helen. They don’t just hate her for what she did, they hate her whole bodily form. This representation of hate is immensely different from the general feelings that surround the myth of Helen. She was said to be the most beautiful woman alive, and that men fought to the death for the right to wed her. This obsession has changed to a powerful hatred.
The speaker goes into specific details about the parts of Helen they hate they most. These parts correspond with what one might previously have seen as being the most beautiful. They hate her “still eyes” that sit in her “white face.” The beautiful olives-like “lustre” of her skin as ell as her “white hands,” are all despised.
All Greece reviles(…)and past ills.
In the second stanza, the hatred that the Greek people feel for Helen is further expanded on and explained. The speaker states that all of “Greece reviles” the sight of Helen’s smiling face, or more simply, they are disgusted by her happiness, and what should be a beautiful sight. Not only do they despise her as a person, they wish her unhappiness.
In the second half of the stanza, the speaker elaborates, saying that Helen’s present happiness and the happiness she might get from remembering the past (both good and bad things) makes them unhappy. They do not want her to experience anything in any way. What they do want becomes clear in the last stanza.
Greece sees unmoved,God’s daughter, born of love,(…)only if she were laid,white ash amid funereal cypresses.
From the perspective of the Greek people, everything that once was beautiful about Helen is now hateful. They are “unmoved”by the sight of her, “God’s daughter.” The speaker uses this phrase to remind the reader how important of a person this woman is, and how far the Greeks had to come to hate her.
She was, before the tragedy that was Troy occurred, “born of love.” Her life started out full and satisfying and just like the public’s opinion about her, that soon changed.
Once more the speaker describes elements of Helen that should incur love and appreciation. These are all aspects of her physical appearance, surface-level charms that initially attracted every man in the world to her. She was attractive to them from her “cool feet” to her “slender… knees.”
These people who have turned on Helen would only be able to regain their love for her if she was dead. Only once she was “white ash amid funeral cypresses,” would they “love…the maid.”
About Hilda Doolittle
The poet Hilda Doolittle, or H.D., was born in September of 1886 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S. Doolittle grew up in a strict religious house, that followed the Moravian tradition. It was from her childhood, in which she received an intellectual and spiritual education that much of her poetry flows.
In 1904, she began schooling at Bryn Mawr College, in Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania. During this same period, she became friends with William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, leaders of the Imagist literary movement. She and Pound were engaged for a brief period of time. Due to ill health, she was forced to leave college after less than two years but would soon travel to Europe on what was meant to be a vacation but became a permanent move.
She mainly lived in England and Switzerland. While there her first poems were sent by Pound to Poetry magazine. It was then that she began to write under the nom de plume “H.D.” In 1916, she released her first complete volume, Sea Garden. It established her position in the Imagist movement. She would follow this volume with Hymen, Heliodora and Other Poems, and Red Roses for Bronze. These three volumes were then followed by another three that formed a trilogy.
Throughout her writings, which she continued to publish her entire life, she spoke about the role of women as artists as well as attempting to reconstruct the female past. Her work was part of the first examples of “free verse” poetry and played an important role in solidifying the practice of stream-of-consciousness writing. She died in Zürich, Switzerland in 1961.