“Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean 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!”
By Edgar Allan Poe
“To Helen” by Edgar Allan Poe is a poem about a man speaking about the beauty of a woman both in body – with the potential reference to Helen of Troy – and in spirit – comparing her to the quintessential beauty of Psyche. The beautiful woman appears in the poem to be a free spirit that reminds the storyteller of long gone times. To accentuate this reference to her ancient beauty “To Helen” employs a strong use of Greek mythology with references to both the story of Psyche and Cupid, Helen of Troy, and possible Dionysos or Bacchus within the stanza’s of the poem.
The first stanza of “To Helen” describes the beauty of Helen akin to that of a boat bringing travellers home from a long time abroad. This can be seen in the second line; “Like those Nicean barks or yore” barks being the small sailing boat and Nicean being an ancient city that was near the Trojan War. The Trojan War is one of the Western world’s most mythical battles where the Greek fleet fought against the city of Troy in a war that lasted for more than nine years. The battle began with Paris of Troy seducing Helen from her husband Menelaus the King of Sparta. The Trojan War is one of the most important battles in Greek mythology.
As the Helen in the poem is being compared, or may be, the Helen of Troy comparing her beauty to that of the woman who caused the weary travellers to become weary and home deprived to begin with due to the war their coming home from is rather ironic. However this imagery in the beginning of the poem; “Like those Nicean barks of yore / Gentle, o’er a perfumed sea,” almost immediately evoke an emotional response in the reader as it uses two rather strong emotional elements in society; war time and the joy of finally returning home. This is most likely the point of the imagery used in the poem and not to point out the irony of Helen of Troy’s beauty being compared to that of the aftermath of her actions of elopement with Paris of Troy.
The poem then accentuates the line with a strong use of imagery; “That gently, o’er a perfumed sea, / The weary, way-worn wanderer bore / To his native shore.” The use of “gently, o’er a perfumed sea” is a strong use of imagery that leaves a clear picture in the readers mind allowing them to easily picture the tired, “way-worn wanderer” returning home. The description of the “weary, way-worn wanderer” in itself also drives the point home with the author’s use of alliteration. This heart warming imagery that fills the stanza is in itself a metaphor for the beauty of Helen whom is introduced in the first line of the poem. This opening stanza gives a very decisive view on the subject of the rest of the poem and leaves the reader with a clear view of the woman in their mind.
“On desperate seas long wont to roam,” This beginning line sets up the structure of the stanza as the nameless narrator tells the listener how, even though they’re so accustomed (“wont”) to roaming the ocean the beauty of Helen brings them back home. The middle of the stanza is dedicated to describing the beauty that brought them home whereas the actual returning to home is explained in the last two lines. Also the continuation of the ocean in the poem, “On desperate seas” is a continuation of the imagery brought about in the first stanza by reference to the “barks” or small boats. This then brings across the imagery of the first stanza into the second stanza as the narrator identifies to the weary, way-worn wanderer....
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