A short and interesting poem, ‘Aunt Helen’ depicts the life and death of the speaker’s aunt. Through the thirteen lines of this poem, Eliot explores themes of life, death, relationships, and solitude. Aside from her animals and servants, Aunt Helen died completely alone. There is no one there to cry over her or truly mourn her passing. The speaker is aware of her life and death but in his language and tone, he does not express anything more than mild interest.
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Summary of Aunt Helen
The poem details the aftermath of this woman’s death. Eliot’s speaker discusses the silence on the street and alludes to the lack of mourners around the woman. Despite being her nephew, the speaker does not show any emotion. He is not grieving for her in this elegy, he is simply noting the facts of her death. The strongest emotion in the poem comes at the end when the speaker mentions the housemaid flirting with the footman.
You can read the full poem here and more poetry from T.S. Eliot here.
Structure of Aunt Helen
‘Aunt Helen’ by T.S. Eliot is a single stanza, thirteen-line elegy, or a poem written in memory of someone who has died. This piece does not have a single rhyme scheme, but there are several examples of internal, half, and perfect rhymes within the poem. For example, “street” and “feet” at the ends of lines five and six is an example of a perfect end rhyme. The ends of lines ten and twelve with “mantelpiece” and “knees” provide the reader with an example of a slant end rhyme, also known as a half-rhyme.
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. There are also examples within the lines themselves, this is a kind of rhyme known as “internal”. For example, “in” and “maiden” in lines one and two.
Poetic Techniques in Aunt Helen
Eliot makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Aunt Helen’. These include, but are not limited to, anaphora, alliteration, allusion, and enjambment. The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “The” begins three of the thirteen lines and appears near the beginning of several more.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “died” and “Dresden” in lines eleven and twelve and “near” and “number” in lines two and three.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to the mind without directly stating it. In this case, the deaths, the clock (which is one of the most important symbols of the poem), and the changes that occur after the death of Helen, allude to the continued progression of time and the inevitable end that everyone meets.
Enjambment 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 transitions between lines two and three and four and five.
Analysis of Aunt Helen
Miss Helen Slingsby was my maiden aunt,And lived in a small house near a fashionable squareCared for by servants to the number of four.Now when she died there was silence in heavenAnd silence at her end of the street.
In the first lines of the poem, Eliot’s speaker introduces “Miss Helen Slingsby”. She is recently deceased and is being elegized in this poem by her nephew. When she was alive she lived in a “small house near a fashionable square”. This line, along with the next few, provides the reader with an example of sibilance, or the repetition of words that begin with soft constant sounds like “s” and “th”. In this case, “s” words appear several lines in the first lines of ‘Aunt Helen’.
The woman clearly had some money. A fact that’s shown through the location of her house ad the details of her “servants” who cared for her. The language in these lines is very formal. This is not an emotional elegy for someone the speaker loved a great deal or over whom they are truly grieving. There is a distance between Aunt Helen and the speaker, as well as the rest of the world. She was alone in the house when she died, aside from the servants, and there was no one on the streets mourning for her.
The shutters were drawn and the undertaker wiped his feet —(…)But shortly afterwards the parrot died too.
In the next four lines, the speaker describes what happened next. The shutters of the house were drawn and the undertaker came in to wipe his feet. By closing the shutters they make sure that no one from outside can see what’s going on within. This is a private matter.
The animals that were in the house are mentioned in lines eight and nine. The “dogs,” of which there were more than one, were provided for. This alludes to the possibility that the animals in her life were her closest companions. This is emphasized by the next line in which the parrot dies “soon afterwards,” as if it could not live without its mistress. The juxtaposition of this death, alongside Aunt Helen’s, should make a reader question how important this woman was to the speaker. In terms of the poem and the language used, they are both equally unimportant.
The Dresden clock continued ticking on the mantelpiece,(…)Who had always been so careful while her mistress lived.
In the last four lines of ‘Aunt Helen,’ the speaker concludes by noting how life goes on. No one, once again, is mourning. The clock, which is quite an expensive one, continues to tick and the servants move on with their lives. In fact, things seem to be better now that she’s gone. One of the housemaids is able to get close to the footman in a way that she never would’ve while Helen was alive.